Merchants say repair work is disrupting business


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ST. CROIX - Some Christiansted merchants are up in arms about work being done this week to the National Park Service's Steeple Building Clock Tower - work that the merchants say is driving business away from their shops at a key time of year.

"I was very upset. This week is the busiest week of the year. And this is the week most of us rely on to get enough money in the coffers to support us through the summer months," said Jan Mitchell, who co-owns Mitchell-Larsen Studio on Company Street with her husband.

"I'm the first one to admit I think it's wonderful they're working on the Steeple Building, but I don't understand why they chose the week before Christmas to do it," she said.

The National Park Service is repairing shingles on the Steeple Building Clock Tower, at the corner of Hospital and Company streets, and has closed access to the area from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. The work started Wednesday and is scheduled to continue through Tuesday - although park superintendent Joel Tutein said he is pushing to get the work wrapped up by the end of the weekend.

Because of the work, a wooden barricade has been set up to direct westbound traffic into Christiansted along Queen Street at the east end of town.

The National Park Service said the work to the clock tower is necessary to repair damages that were incurred in October 2008 during Hurricane Omar.

Repairs originally had been scheduled for February, but Tutein said that it became necessary to push the schedule up after shingles began blowing off the tower a couple of weeks ago.

"This work was slated for February, but because all the shingles started to blow off, it created a safety hazard, and we really couldn't wait any longer," Tutein said.

"There was a possibility of someone getting hurt from those shingles," he said. "We don't want anyone getting injured or any cars getting damaged."

Mitchell said she questions that explanation.

"I don't believe that for a moment. Not for one little moment. I walk that distance every day, and I have never seen a shingle on the ground," she said.

Peyton Bryant, who owns Small Wonder, a shop that sells children's clothing and toys, said that if the shingles have been coming off, there are other ways to temporarily deal with the problem until the holidays are over.

"In other places, they string up netting. There are alternatives," she said, contending that the decision was made without regard for the surrounding business community. "It's not what's best for the community. It's what's easiest for the Park Service, and it's always been that way."

Because of the work on the clock tower, the entrance to Company Street has been blocked off near Fort Christiansvaern. While motorists on Queen Street can cross over to Company Street as they travel west, merchants said they do not believe that is the choice most potential customers will make.

"A lot of people just keep going, right out of town. They don't know what's going on," Bryant said. "Why pick the busiest time of year to do this, when you've known about it three years? Why would you pick the two weeks before Christmas? We are trying to make up for a slow summer."

Mitchell also noted that the work and heavy equipment in the street is affecting pedestrian traffic to Company Street from the area around the fort.

Tutein said that the passageway between the old post office and Hospital Street has been opened up for pedestrian access in that area and that the equipment is moved once work stops at 4 p.m. He also pointed out that the Park Service parking lot by the fort often is used by shoppers.

"A lot of those people patronizing the stores are using the National Park Service parking lot, which is open and free," he said.

He apologized for any inconvenience the work and traffic diversion may have caused.

Bryant and Mitchell also said they were upset because they were not aware ahead of time about the traffic diversion.

Tutein said that an announcement the Park Service issued to media outlets on Monday was the Park Service's notice to the public.

After a full day of traffic diversion and work on the Steeple Building, Government House released a statement from St. Croix Administrator Dodson James' office late Wednesday afternoon, also informing the public about the work the Park Service is doing and the traffic diversion.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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