- Associated Press - Thursday, August 4, 2016

LAPAZ, Ind. (AP) - As Chuck Ross bought groceries on a recent July morning, he didn’t express much hope for businesses in this tiny town with about 600 residents.

The 62-year-old lifelong LaPaz resident - a regular here at Mac’s Market - noted that Burger King closed last fall, and there is speculation that other businesses will follow suit.

The restaurant was an apparent victim of the U.S. 31 bypass from South Bend to Plymouth that opened August 2014. The realigned 20-mile highway diverted traffic from the old U.S. 31 route that crosses through LaPaz and Lakeville - a neighboring town about five miles north.

“It’s slowed things down quite a bit for businesses,” Ross said.

The new bypass - part of a broader state project with other bypasses built to improve U.S. 31 from South Bend to Indianapolis - has resulted in a faster drive for motorists. Traffic studies indicate it has rerouted the daily flow of more than 20,000 vehicles from the old route.

The bypass has made LaPaz and Lakeville much quieter. Although that’s a plus for people who no longer have to wait to cross the road, it’s a negative for businesses that rely on through traffic.

LaPaz business owners say the town has been hurt more by the bypass than Lakeville, which recently replaced its sidewalks and installed benches, bicycle racks, planters and trees as part of an $800,000 streetscape project that is almost completed. And unlike LaPaz, Lakeville enjoys an economic boost from a mix of recreational activities: camping at Potato Creek State Park, fishing at Pleasant Lake and youth sports at Newton Park.

LaPaz has planned its own streetscape project, but business owners who’ve seen sales fall by nearly 50 percent since the bypass opened find it difficult to be upbeat. And their sales are down even more this year than in 2015 because of a road project being completed by the Indiana Department of Transportation.

That project on Michigan Road - the name of the old U.S. 31 section in Marshall County - started in March and is expected to be done this week after being delayed roughly a month, according to an INDOT spokesman. A mile-long section to the south of the U.S. 6 intersection is closed, with detours rerouting motorists. INDOT, which removed an old bridge and repaved the section, will transfer its ownership of Michigan Road to Marshall County - from Plymouth to the county line - after the project is done. LaPaz, meanwhile, will own the section within the town.

Mac’s Market owner Ronnie “Mac” McCartney said INDOT planned its U.S. 31 project without caring about the impact on the town. While the bypass features Lakeville and North Liberty with a large exit sign, for example, LaPaz has only on a small sign for its exit; Bremen and Walkerton are on another big one. And INDOT’s Michigan Road project has “made the town feel like a lonely island,” he said, estimating that only a few hundred cars pass through daily.

“We’re anxiously awaiting LaPaz to be reunited with the outside world,” said the 75-year-old.

Sales this year at his general store, near the intersection of U.S. 6, are down about 50 percent compared to before the bypass opened. Rumors have circulated about the possible closure of the store, but McCartney plans to keep it open as long as possible.

McDonald’s, across the road from Mac’s, has a PlayPlace that serves as a reminder of its high-traffic days. Employees at the restaurant dropped from about 60 to 40 after the bypass opened, said Bill Boldt, a McDonald’s franchisee who owns the restaurant and four others in the region.

“I’ve seen a significant drop-off in sales, but I don’t want to quantify it. From talking to all of the gas stations around me, everybody is 50 percent down,” Boldt said.

But Boldt noted that he recently remodeled the restaurant and plans to keep it open. “I’m in this business for the long haul, and I’m hoping to build my sales off the new highway,” he said. “But INDOT is still a concern because you don’t know what stupid things they’re going to do. They won’t give you any time to rest and keep pounding away.”

The Phillips 66 gas station in LaPaz, which shares a building with Arby’s, has seen gas sales fall by about 40 percent since the bypass opened, said Kevin Singh, the station’s manager. The town’s Speedway and Marathon gas stations have also lost customers. “I don’t think all three will survive,” he said.

The blueberry picking season at Pickin’ Patch in LaPaz was devastated by the Michigan Road project, said manager Diane Cole. The 35-acre blueberry farm is closed on Saturdays because there aren’t enough customers. “You have to explain to people how to get here,” she said.

At Whiteman-Cook Greenhouses, about two miles south of LaPaz on Michigan Road, sales are down about 30 percent this season compared to before the bypass opened, said Denesa Cook, who co-owns the business with her husband, Todd. She’s been frustrated by INDOT’s road project, which has cut off traffic and confused motorists. People often stop to ask for directions.

“They’re not stopping for flowers, but because they’re lost,” Cook said.

Row after row of flowers, bushes and trees have gone unsold this season. “I’ll be ordering less inventory for next season,” she said.

Not all businesses are struggling, however, in LaPaz. Brian McCallen, owner of Burky’s Bottle Stop on Michigan Road, said his sales have dropped only about 5 percent since the bypass opened. “I lost a small percentage from Notre Dame football crowds who would stop by Pat’s restaurant next door and then stop here to buy beer to be ready to tailgate for games,” he said.

Locals were concerned when the former owner of Pat’s - a fixture in town - closed the restaurant less than a year after the bypass opened. But in fall 2015, the restaurant was reopened by Javier and Norma Figueroa as Pat’s Cantina & Grill.

LaPaz Councilman Roger Ecker said the town has planned a $1.3 million project on Michigan Road that will be similar to the one in Lakeville on Indiana 931 - the name of the old U.S. 31 in St. Joseph County. LaPaz secured a $1 million grant from INDOT, along with a total of $300,000 in state and federal grants that includes a $60,000 town match. As part INDOT’s agreement to transfer a 1.2-mile section of the road to LaPaz, it gave the town $500,000 for future road projects.

The town plans to break ground next summer on the project, which calls for repaving its section of the road. The road will be reconfigured to have one lane in each direction instead of two, making room for a center turn lane. “The intent is to slow traffic down and make it easier to turn,” Ecker said, adding that diagonal parking could be put in front of some businesses.

Trees will be planted along the road, and a sidewalk will be built on its east side. The town plans to have the road repaved by fall 2017 and sidewalks done by summer 2018.

Streetscape improvements in Lakeville have been appreciated by businesses, said Dennis Deniger, owner of Off the Clock Packaged Liquors and founder of the Working Person’s Store. Deniger said that next year he plans to reopen two businesses that he closed before the bypass opened: Buffalo Rose’s Pizzeria & Pub and the Trading Post, a gift and jewelry shop. He also wants to open a takeout restaurant that sells cut meats, ice cream and caffeinated beverages.

The new bypass “has improved our quality of life because traffic used to go by so quickly and loudly,” said Deniger, a member of the Lakeville Business Owners Association and president of the Lakeville Park Board. “It’s been a chance to reinvent ourselves, and we now have people walking and on bikes.”

He asserted that other businesses in town haven’t lost much traffic due to the bypass. A new Dollar General store is now being constructed, and BP will demolish its gas station this fall to build a new one.

Even so, sales at Subway and Leo’s Family Restaurant, located next to each other off Indiana 931, have declined since the bypass opened.

The Subway used to be staffed by three part-time employees but is down to one, said Sam Patel, the manager. “Sales are 50 percent down because of the bypass,” he said. “Everybody is really down. All of the gas stations are down.”

Sales at Leo’s, meanwhile, have dropped about 20 percent since the bypass opened, said waitress Lessly Delgado, whose husband manages the restaurant. “Our business is mainly local, but we’ve had a little bit less in sales,” she said. “We might have to raise our menu prices.”

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Source: South Bend Tribune, http://bit.ly/2auYSBy

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com

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