321 project impacts business

Vehicles head toward downtown Lenoir City after passing through the intersection of U.S. Highways 321 and 11.

Businesses near the intersection of U.S. Highways 321 and 11 are feeling the effects financially of a project that has been underway since 2017.

Tennessee Department of Transportation spokesman Mark Nagi recently said work will “realistically” be fully complete by late spring or early summer. June 30 was the initial completion date but was previously extended due to unforeseen delays including a “sinkhole remediation and several utility conflicts with roadway features and the local water main.”

The project includes widening two miles of road on U.S. 321 and improving the intersection.

“As part of the project, the contractor was required to install conduit at the intersection of U.S. 321 and State Route 2, which was completed in late spring 2019,” Nagi said in an email correspondence. “Upon completion of the installed conduit, AT&T would place a new fiber optic line necessary to retire/abandon the current facility. Due to the construction complexity of the AT&T fiber line, 255 days is required for installation.”

AT&T has offered an estimated completion of winter 2019, which Nagi said should allow the project to be finished entirely by May.

The road project includes widening two miles from U.S. 11 to Simpson Road East, with the existing roadway expanded to six lanes.

“Although the work that can be performed at the intersection of U.S. 321 and U.S. 11 is limited at this time, the contractor is continuing to focus efforts along U.S. 321,” Nagi said. “The contractor’s schedule shows completing efforts along U.S. 321 by the close of 2019, while the remaining work at the intersection will likely be completed by summer of 2020.”

Steve Gregg has owned Time Saver Cleaners near the intersection for 30 years. Since the project began, business has declined, he said.

“I mean you can just see that by looking at the traffic,” Gregg said. “It’s almost nothing and still it’s terrible. You can’t get through it.”

He estimated revenue was down at least 30 percent.

“It’s killing everybody,” he said. “I mean, truthfully, if they would have finished when they said, everybody was ready for that, but now being another year, you don’t have anything left to feed on. Everything from the years past is gone.”

With business down, Gregg emphasized “we don’t get paid.”

“You still got to pay the tax man, you still got to pay LCUB or you’re gone, so we don’t get paid,” he said.

Stan Anthony said Tilley Motor Company is on average selling five to 10 fewer vehicles per month.

“I can’t really complain like I used to because you have easy access now,” Anthony said. “Now when they were on my side of the street, I was for all intents and purposes I was just about out of business. I couldn’t even get in. I would even have people get to the Sonic and call and say, ‘We see the car that we want. We can’t get in,’ and we’d have to go show them how to get in. It’s been bad, and they weren’t supposed to come down here this far. My understanding they were supposed to stop at the attorneys’ office.”

He described the project as frustrating, adding he hasn’t been contacted by state or city officials.

“What you’ve got now is I have no real drive-by traffic,” Anthony said. “When you try to want to feature something new that came in or something unique you want to park it out front. Well, it doesn’t matter where I park it now because what few people are coming through here are not from here. They’re frustrated. The traffic line’s backed up all the way to Pilot every day at 5 o’clock. If I didn’t have a large web presence, my retail business would really pay the price.

“The local people know not to drive by here,” he added. “I’ve got people calling from Chattanooga and places in Sevier County, ‘Are ya’ll where the construction is?’ I’m like, ‘Well yeah, we’re right in the middle of it.’ Apparently everybody’s talking about it. What I understand there’s a website now where people can get on it and voice their complaints (about) 321.”

Anthony is concerned for those across from him.

“You know, people are going to go into Sonic, they’re going to find a way into Sonic at night, it’s amazing,” he said. “They finally paved three drive-ins, three entrances, two to Sonic and one to the car wash. ... I knew it was going to stop when I saw that, and they’ve not pushed gravel over there in two months — nothing.”

Smoky Mountain Realty’s front has been blocked for several months.

“It’s hard for people to find out how to get into our office,” Tonya Bledsoe, real estate agent, said. “It’s very confusing because part of this road is open to go to Sonic and to the car wash, but this is not open. We’ve seen people even driving through this area right here (beside the building) trying to come up this closed road. It’s kind of dangerous because a lot of times people try to turn in, especially if they’re not from around here. Even people that’s from around here it’s pretty dangerous because they try to turn into the car wash or Sonic, and you get a big line of traffic both ways.”

She’s uncertain how much business has been negatively impacted.

“We had a little bit of a sewer problem that we inherited from something they did out here that we had to get fixed,” she said. “We just had to fix that on our own. ... They’ve not even really worked out here the past few months because I guess there’s some kind of problem with AT&T or something, and all that jackhammering they did was really bad to work through. We’ve had some cracks and stuff in our building, but just want to wait until it’s all over with and we’ll assess all that.”