The coronavirus pandemic was devastating for business. State-mandated closings. Takeout dining only And fear of a rapidly spreading illness.
The number of customers plummeted, and profits evaporated.
Now, thanks to vaccines, business is finally returning to a degree of pre-pandemic normal.
Except on Main Street in Evanston.
Water main replacement and sewer construction has led to eastbound lane closures and westbound detours during work hours, plus parking restrictions, noise, and dust.
Getting to your favorite store or restaurant has become a challenge, and customers are once again not showing up. And the work still has two more months to go.
“I thought it was going to be terrible,” says Diana Hamann, owner of The Wine Goddess. “But it’s worse.”
Things are so bad, Hamann says, that she is pulling The Wine Goddess out of the Custer Oasis, an outdoor dining and drinking setup on Custer Street where it intersects with Main.
Hamann says she hired several new people to staff the Oasis, but with business so slow, “now we have to pull the plug” and let some of them go.
Construction began in mid-June on Main Street between Hinman and Maple.
In the 30 days since June 14, Hamann says her income is down $21,000 compared to the same period last year, when The Wine Goddess was not even open for walk-in customers.
“We’re open for in-person shopping now,” Hamann says, “but no one comes through.”
It’s a similar story at Evanston Stitchworks, on Sherman Avenue just off Main.
“Foot traffic has almost disappeared,” says owner Amalia Malos. It’s also been “total chaos” for those picking up or dropping off attendees at the store’s summer camps.
“It looks like a war zone out here,” Malos says.
And, like at The Wine Goddess, what hurts the most is that the construction began just when the coronavirus was letting up.
“The timing could not have been worse,” Malos says. “This is actually worse than COVID.” Malos says she is ordering less stock because she has fewer customers, and fewer customers means employee hours have been reduced.
Katherine Gotsick, executive director of the Main/Dempster Mile marketing association acknowledges that the city has to get the work finished, work where planning likely began well before COVID-19.
But still, she says the impact on Main Street merchants has been “brutal.”
The City’s Public Works Director, Dave Stoneback says he knows that “a lot of businesses are upset.”
Stoneback says there had to be some unexpected extra work because a contractor hit a water main on the second or third day of the project.
He says the city is working to minimize the disruption by trying to allow two-way traffic on evenings and weekends.
This summer’s work is just part of a multi-year project that will include new street lights and sidewalks to make the area more pedestrian friendly.
The short-term pain, City leaders hope, will ultimately mean long-term gain for Main Street stores and restaurants..
But some wonder what it will take to stay around.
At Stitchworks, owner Malos says “I will squeak through, but it’s exhausting.”
“We were standing up and now we have to sit back down,” she adds.
As for The Wine Goddess, Sunday will be that store’s final night at Custer Oasis, although the shop itself will remain open, even if access is difficult.
“I said to the City you have to help us,” says owner Hamann. “There’s no way to get to us.”
Hamann says the whole situation has become a nightmare. In eight days, Hamann says she has to pay the city $3,500 in liquor taxes, but because business is so bad, she says, “I don’t have it.”
Hamann says she asked the city for a payment moratorium. “They said no.”
Two other restaurants are also in the outdoor Custer Oasis, La Principal and Trattoria D.O.C.
Eric Young, owner of La Principal, is not sure if he’ll leave the outdoor site or not, but says “I’m hedging towards ditching the Oasis altogether” to concentrate on indoor dining.
Young says the Oasis was established last summer when indoor restaurant service was banned due to the pandemic, and was “the key to our survival.” The Oasis was so popular that the three participants decided to bring it back this summer.
Young says the construction work, according to the City, was not supposed to spill over onto Custer, but it did.
The La Principal owner says he’s waiting to see how much more impact there is on Custer before deciding whether to stay in the Oasis, but “this is not an experience I’d like to give to my guests, sitting in the middle of a construction zone.”
The owner of Trattoria D.O.C., Guilianna Mazzocchetti, says her restaurant is open for indoor dinner, but has still not reopened for lunch. “We wouldn’t be able to get customers in the door” during lunchtime construction hours, she says.
Mazzocchetti says she’s confident that Trattoria D.O.C will make it through this summer of construction discontent.
But she’s not certain yet if she’ll stay in the Custer Oasis, with the Wine Goddess pulling out.
Mazzocchetti says she’ll try, but without The Wine Goddess, “the Oasis is not an oasis any more.”