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Adjacent businesses are rebounding from Lemay Ferry Road bridge closing

Sale and clearance racks easily can be found every summer in south county businesses, but this summer reduced merchandise is just one sign of the area's economy recovering from the Lemay Ferry Road bridge closing.

For the first time in 22 years, Jim Norval, owner of Gwen's Hallmark, 4406 Lemay Ferry Road, is marking down greeting cards that typically are sold in early summer months. Norval attributes the product surplus to the bridge closing, which significantly decreased the access to his store, situated in a shopping center on the corner of Lemay Ferry and Forder roads.

Access to North Lemay Ferry toward Lindbergh Boulevard was closed for two months to replace the Lemay Ferry Road bridge over Interstate 255. The bridge was closed May 1 and officials predicted it would take four months to construct the new bridge — a $5.7 million investment.

Before the closure in May, Missouri Department of Transportation traffic counts indicated at least 28,000 used the bridge daily.

Finishing 57 days ahead of schedule, Fred Weber Inc. construction crews, contracted by the Missouri Department of Transportation, completed work and re-opened the bridge in early July.

Striping and concrete median work on I-255 were completed last week and the permanent I-255 lane restrictions at Lemay Ferry Road were removed Friday. Also, all southbound lanes on the I-55 exit ramp to eastbound I-255 were opened Friday.

Despite the early opening, Norval's Lemay Ferry Road business suffered a 45 percent drop in sales during the two-month bridge closure.

"Our customer count went down," he said. "We had fewer people in."

Fewer people visiting the store between Mother's Day and Father's Day was hard for the business to absorb, he said.

"Those are two big seasons," he said. "It's coming back, but we won't have that major season, so we've lost that. That's the problem."

A lack of traffic using the ramps from Interstate 270 onto Lemay Ferry Road significantly affected an adjacent White Castle on the northwest corner of Lemay Ferry and Forder, according to General Manager Claude Wessel.

"Oh yeah," Wessel said. "We dropped about 40 percent in sales. But we're back up to normal now so everything is really going well for us. It had a big impact on us for the two months."

The day the bridge shut down, traffic was horrible, he said, and business was dwindling.

"Then all of a sudden, everything just died out," he said. "It was almost like a ghost town, even during rush hour ... Nobody would stop in the restaurant."

Noting that summer months are critical for the fast-food industry, Wessel said, "It won't be easy to recover, but I think we can do it."

Across the street, a gas station manager believes her business only dropped 15 percent — much less than what she expected.

Teresa Niles, manager of a Citgo gas station on the southwest corner of Lemay Ferry and Forder, believes she actually picked up some of the business that was lost because of the road closure.

"Basically, I think we picked up a lot of business on people coming in and just getting a gallon of milk," she said.

Because access to other retailers was limited, she said nearby apartment residents used the gas station for quick grocery needs — one reason why she believed the Citgo did not take the closing as hard as expected.

"A lot of it was people just coming in and asking for directions," she added. "We gave out directions about 1,000 times a day."

With the construction, she explained non-local drivers often were confused and did not know any other way to reach certain destinations without using the Lemay Ferry Bridge.

Now that the bridge has reopened, she said business is at the same level it was before the road closures.

"I'm just amazed at how quickly they got it done," she said.

MoDOT also was surprised, the department's south county area engineer, Tom Blair, told the Call.

The old bridge was more than 40 years old and needed to be replaced, MoDOT determined. The new bridge features 10-foot outside shoulders, a separated pedestrian walkway and earthquake strengthening, plus a new northbound lane between Forder Road and the northbound Interstate 270 entrance ramp.

Instead of a complete road closure, the department considered limiting access over two Christmas seasons, but then opted to complete all the work at once.

Even after that decision was made to finish the work in four months, he said, the department was apprehensive that it could be done. Bridge replacements comparable to the Lemay Ferry project have been done in Missouri, he said, but in much more rural areas than south county.

"There have not been too many closures or projects of this magnitude in an urban setting in Missouri — nothing like this," he said.

The department believes that the Lemay Ferry bridge replacement set a record and was completed faster than any other project of its magnitude in an urban Missouri setting, he said.

"A lot of things just went right," Blair said of the early bridge reopening. "A lot of us at MoDOT put a lot of time in designing a project that was able to succeed. We put together a contract that had the opportunity to succeed. The stage was set by MoDOT ... and then we had a contractor that really wanted to get the work done."

Finishing the project in two months, he said, provided the least amount of negative impact to motorists, schools and businesses in such a metropolitan area like south county, Blair added.

While the bridge closing was not convenient for area businesses, Walgreens store manager Doug Compton, who oversees operations at the store on the northeast corner of Lemay Ferry and Forder, told the Call that construction during summer months did not take a huge toll on his store.

"We were substantially affected negatively," Compton said. "It was just due to traffic basically. When there's no volume, of course your sales are going to be affected. And now that the bridge is open, it's back to the way it was. (The bridge closing) would have hurt a retailer more so in the winter, closer to Christmas.

"We've lost clientele because they were on the other side of the bridge, but they've come back ... I know that the neighborhood was kind of shocked by it, taken aback, but I think we're all happy that it's open,'' he added.

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