2013-08-29 / News Briefs

Newport and the National Grid Big Dig

By Daniel Highet

Several businesses along Broadway have experienced drastically lower than average revenue because of ongoing construction performed by National Grid this summer. Newport’s version of the Big Dig, with its many cavernous holes, circuitous detours, and clouds of dirt and dust, is seemingly ubiquitous this summer. Even so, the backhoes and incessant beeps of back-up alarms that have some citizens on edge, are nothing compared to the financial toll on many of the area’s local retailers and restaurants.

When compared to identical periods last summer, some local businesses located in the thick of construction along Broadway have reported revenue losses of up to 50 percent. At least one specialty retailer seriously considered shuttering permanently and liquidating its stock. Such was the precipitous drop in its income, as construction crews closed the sidewalk and dug man-deep trenches, transforming the scene in front of the shop’s door into an area suggesting a war zone.

As one local merchant stated, “Welcome to Newport, destroyed for you by National Grid.”

When asked to characterize the City of Newport’s experience with National Grid, Mayor Henry F. Winthrop stated, “It has not been a very pleasant relationship with National Grid. Ten days ago, I asked the city manager to bring in their senior management to meet with us, because I, for one, am not happy with their performance. For a number of years, you could drive around Newport and see where they probably did a hook-up and didn’t repair the road.”

While many local merchants on Broadway complain about the effect of construction on their summer business, reports have surfaced that the utility company has settled claims compensating lost revenue to at least one storekeeper.

Patti Kendall, who, with her husband Walter Platt, owns Pan Handler’s Fine Cookware and Cutlery on the corner of Broadway and Bull Street, said that she had to close their business for two weeks. While Kendall declined to identify the exact amount she received from National Grid, citing a confidentiality agreement, she did confirm to Newport This Week that Pan Handler’s was one of the recipients of a monetary settlement. In submitting her claim, Kendall provided the company with an 11-page document, including several photographs. She also emailed the president of National Grid but received no response.

“I kept calling. I was relentless,” Kendall stated, when asked how she finally got the company’s attention. In contrast to her struggles with National Grid, she made a point to praise the open communication she has experienced with D’Ambra Construction, whose crew is working on the water and sewer. At Kendall’s request, D’Ambra postponed work on the eve of Labor Day weekend to the following week in order to keep foot traffic unimpeded and her storefront unblocked. “I called and wrote an email to the president of D’Ambra telling him that his company should train the National Grid crew,” Kendall stated.

National Grid media relations representative for Rhode Island, David Graves, stated in a phone interview that the company has thus far only received two claims in 2013. It has finalized one settlement, although Graves declined to confirm that payout, citing confidentiality. Graves also said Nat Grid is awaiting a response from another Broadway merchant concerning a claim. “But again,” Graves said, “we’ve received only two claims in 2013. Our record speaks for itself. We’re very careful about the work we do. We are cognizant that businesses need to stay open. We try to be as clean and as cautious as we can.”

When this statement from the National Grid spokesperson was read to Patti Kendall, she said the record of photographic evidence speaks otherwise. She shared a number of digital photos with this reporter showing how her storefront had become physically unapproachable because of National Grid construction. In one shot, a cloud of dirt mushrooming above the street and around Pan Handler’s building colored the air a dark gray.

Other business owners on Broadway, including Hank Whiten, coowner of Pour Judgement, are looking into making claims for lost revenue. “The road is a disaster,” Whiten stated, adding that his business, located near the Old Colony House, is down 20 percent overall for the summer.

Rich Ferreira, the owner of Holy Smokes, a smoke shop also located near the Old Colony House, said his business was down 50 percent during the two-week period when National Grid construction crews labored outside his door. “When they detour traffic off the street on which your business is located, it’s going to affect sales,” Ferreira stated. He is also considering making a claim against National Grid.

Marco T. Camacho, First Ward Councilor, said in a telephone interview, “Newport has had its issues in the past with National Grid, and I anticipate we will have issues with them in the future. But a development of this scale is going to have its problems.” Councilor Camacho pointed to the non-negotiable fact that unlike other city contractors, National Grid has a monopoly on gas and electric service and Newport cannot simply make the decision to do business with another competing utility company.

Councilor Camacho also stressed that once the National Grid gas pipeline work and the Broadway Streetscape Plan is completed, the area will be revitalized.

Several Newport business owners whose establishments are not located on Broadway, but who over the years have experienced their own frustration with construction crews appearing at the height of their busiest season, voiced their sympathies.

Richard “Biggie” Korn, the owner of Yesterday’s Ale House, stated, “This is the fourth year in a row businesses in Newport have been impeded by construction. Last summer, it was the city.”

Korn pointed to the Washington Square project that saw the installation of bluestone sidewalks, among other improvements, in front of his restaurant one year ago. The construction crews and equipment pre-empted parking and negatively affected pedestrian traffic. Korn estimates that poorly-timed construction approved by the City Council over the past three years has cost his business over $300,000 in lost revenue.

Bill Lehourites, who manages Jonathan’s Ocean Coffee Roasters, two doors down from Yesterday’s, agreed with Korn that last summer’s construction negatively affected his restaurant.

“It’s nice to see that National Grid recognizes that there’s an issue and that they made good on the lost revenue of one business,” stated Lehourites, referring to reports of the utility’s settlement. “But it’s a shame the city continues to put businesses under financial duress with badly scheduled construction and development projects.”

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