An upgrade project on South Oregon Street attracted criticism from some local merchants because of its timing. (The Enterprise/Rachel Parsons)

ONTARIO – City officials say a remodeling of South Oregon Street will enhance safety and create an appealing vista for visitors and residents, but some businesses’ owners are unhappy with the timing of the project.

The $715,225 project – designed to widen sidewalks at six intersections, add new curbs and gutters and streamline drainage - kicked off in mid-May just after Gov. Kate Brown allowed Malheur County businesses to return to operations or expand their services. Many businesses opened only a short time before the street reconstruction began.

Ontario City Manager Adam Brown said the city intended to complete the project last fall.

“We decided we did not want to hurt holiday business,” said Brown.

Brown said the city planned to complete the project while most businesses along South Oregon Street were shut down or offering only curbside service because of COVID-19 virus restrictions to lessen the impact. He expects the work to be done by late June.

Brown said input from business owners along the street about the project was mixed.

“Some of them complained, some are mad at us. Some understand. It is a range of emotions,” said Brown.

The project cut off street access to the front portion of many businesses on the street. Many businesses are accessible through back doors that open on parking lots or alleyways but the impact from the loss of foot traffic has been acute.

“When we were shut down and doing just takeout and delivery, we were busier than we are now,” said Tamara Carrell manager of Romio’s Pizza and Pasta at 375 S. Oregon St.

“I am all for the project, but it would have been nice if they’d given us a little time to get back on our feet,” said Carrell.

Down the street, Grant Griggs, owner of Grant’s Shoes, also said the timing was poor.

“It is something that probably needed to be done but timing wasn’t really good just as we were coming back to work and getting things rolling good,” said Griggs.

Griggs said the project impacted his business.

“We have no foot traffic. If they are coming here, it is a destination and they must navigate the blockage to get here,” said Griggs.

Vintage Rose owner Tracy Hammond said the project is killing her business.

“This is a nightmare. I am sorry, but we were closed for two months because of COVID and then open for two days. For four months I can’t pay my bills,” said Hammond.

Hammond said she is seriously considering a move across the Snake River to Idaho because of the impact of the project.

“My overhead is $4,500 a month. How many months do I keep going into debt?” said Hammond.

The city has offered to forgive the cost of water for the businesses closed off by the construction. That, too, isn’t much help said Hammond.

Hammond said while there is parking available behind her store, she doesn’t have a back door so customers must walk around and through the construction to reach her store.

“I don’t know how much longer any of us can do this,” said Hammond.

At Oregon Trail Hobbies, co-owner Cheryl Cruson said she “can’t really say I’ve lost business because of the construction.”

“We are dealing with it. It will be nice when it’s finished. We knew it was coming so we kind of planned for it,” said Cruson.

Brown said he agreed the timing of the project was “bad.”

“But there never really was going to be a good time. Better to just rip the Band-Aid off and just get it done,” said Brown.

He expects the work to be done by late June.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] com. or 541-235-1003.

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