PILOT MOUNTAIN — Poor planning and lack of communication are what have led to an economic struggle for survival in Pilot Mountain, according to local business owners and town officials.
More than 50 people from the business community gathered with town officials and county Commissioner Paul Johnson last week in the basement meeting room of Mountain View Restaurant to discuss the absence of the N.C. 268 bridge overpass at U.S. 52.
The bridge was removed about a month ago by crews with Smith-Rowe Construction out of Mount Airy, so that a new, higher bridge can be built in its place.
The business owners said it has cut traffic to the town’s businesses so much that some already are reducing hours and offerings to customers in an effort to save money just to survive what the North Carolina Department of Transportation reported as a year-long project. Many fear they won’t survive the year and are pleading for help from potential customers and from the government.
“Who is going to pay my payroll?” one business owner asked during the meeting.
Pilot Mountain Mayor Earl Sheppard and Johnson said the town and county received the same 10-day notice everyone else got that the bridge was coming down, and that the lack of customer traffic, especially during the height of vacation travel months, will hurt the town coffers due to the lack of sales tax being collected on purchases during a budget time that already is tight.
Donald Mueller, owner of Mountain View, was the initiator of the gathering, and said he understands the bridge already is gone, but wants to know what they can do.
Some attending suggested signs on southbound 52 before Cook School Road and on northbound before Pinnacle to let travelers know they have to get off earlier to access town, but that “Pilot Mountain is still open for business,” another concerned owner said.
Johnson said he spoke with Trent Beaver at DOT’s Wilkesboro office, which oversees Surry’s engineering district, and said he told him “they didn’t realized it was going to cause this kind of disruption.”
“As far as the process, I’ve heard the county and town blamed,” Johnson said. “It is not the county or town. The state is behind on bridge replacements, so they have money and are speeding up.”
One of the bigger concerns was that no work has been done at the bridge site in more than two weeks, according to several of those attending.
Johnson said David Rowe with Smith-Rowe said the company is waiting on the arrival of ordered supplies to begin the new bridge. But those attending were dismayed and perplexed that the old bridge was so quickly removed if no one was ready for the new bridge to begin.
Mueller estimated that the absence of the bridge will be a $4 million cut in the next year to the local economy, leading to a cycle of businesses closing.
“I think some of us are angry, I’m angry,” said Mueller. “A lot of us have worked hard at our businesses.”
Another concern is the lack of proper detour signs, said one business owner. She said that there are detours for those wanting to travel N.C. 268, but no explanation that tells people unfamiliar with the area that the bridge is not available to access businesses on each side of the highway.
As far as the option for a temporary bridge being installed, Johnson said Beaver told him the state never even considered that an option. “McDonald’s, Circle K and Wendy’s would have lost most of their parking lots, and it is $600,000 on a temporary bridge so either Cook School Road or Old Westfield Road (bridge projects scheduled next) would have been eliminated, so it was never considered,” the commissioner reported.
Johnson said, “It could have been worse. They were going to do Cook School Road, this and Old Westfield at the same time.”
“The bridge is gone, we can talk all night. Where does the pressure need to be put?” asked one person.
Johnson told them that Beaver said he would meet with them, and that they need to be talking to Rep. Sarah Stevens and Sen. Shirley Randleman, their state elected officials in addition to the DOT board representative from Watauga County.
“Is there any opportunity for us to recoup some of the cost of this?” an owner asked.
Johnson said that would be a question for Stevens and Randleman to answer.
“I think we are going about it the right way. The squeaky wheel gets grease,” said business owner Dickie Crump.
“I think one of the great things about this town is we rally,” said another person. “The town is in trouble, and we need people to know and to come shop here. We need to spread the word that we’re in trouble.”
Another meeting is scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m. at Mountain View Restaurant. A DOT official, in addition to town and county officials, will be in attendance, and organizers hope Stevens and Randleman will be able to attend.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-835-1513 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.