WENATCHEE — Just a week after it closed, the popular breakfast-and-lunch spot Jeepers It’s Bagels displayed proof of its demise: a “for sale” sign posted by Century 21 and a makeshift memorial of candles and flowers placed, most likely, by a devoted bagel lover.
“We hated to see it come to this, to see one of our neighbors have to close,” said Karen Slack, owner of Nail Spa Academy, a few doors down from Jeepers in South Wenatchee’s Victorian Village. “It’s so sad. Everyone loved the place.”
Now Victorian Village’s five other tenants are left wondering what the effects of newly installed traffic controls on Mission Street might have on the flow of customers to their own businesses. Some report walk-in traffic has dropped to zero, two owners say their total customer count has fallen by 50 percent and all claim the controls have contributed, in part, to fewer customers at the 27-year-old commercial development.
The city of Wenatchee installed the block-long line of traffic stanchions — from Chehalis Street to Peachey Street — in early November as part of efforts to smooth the way for big trucks along Mission Street and Chelan Avenue and discourage them from using streets in the downtown core. To widen lanes for big rigs, the city removed a center turn lane where Mission and Chelan merge and installed the stanchions, a traffic fix that eliminates left turns by southbound traffic into Victorian Village.
Concerns intensified last week as an anticipated Christmas rush fizzled for at least two of the tenants and rumors swirled over a possible lawsuit against the city to have the traffic controls redesigned or removed.
“It seems like the city put those things (traffic stanchions) up without thinking it all through,” said Federico Rodriguez, owner of El Abuelo with his wife Alejandra. “It cut down traffic to our business. Jeepers had to close. There isn’t even a place to put plowed snow. Before, they piled it in the center turn lane.”
Rodriguez echoed complaints from other Village tenants that the flow of customers dropped substantially from the day the traffic stanchions were installed. “We’re down 50 percent at least, and maybe much more,” he said, waving a hand at only two tables with lunchtime diners on Christmas Eve. “Not good for such a busy shopping day.”
Both Jeepers It’s Bagels and its sister business, Ruby Marz Bakery, in the Pybus Public Market closed Dec. 16, and owner Brian Buchmann blames their departure, in part, on the new traffic controls. Most of Ruby’s baked goods were made in Jeepers’ kitchen, Buchmann explained, so closure of Jeepers cut off the supply of goods to the Pybus location.
Buchmann couldn’t be reached for comment for this story, but for an article last week he said, “Right from day one, right when they were installed, we saw a huge drop in business.” He estimated then that business at his drive-through window alone fell 20 percent after the controls were installed.
The business portion of Jeepers, including equipment and fixtures, was put up for sale last week. Pybus execs have begun the search for a new tenant to replace Ruby Marz.
Last week, Mayor Frank Kuntz said the city spent time in deciding to install the traffic controls, which came at the recommendation of the state Department of Transportation. “We discussed it at a City Council meeing and were hoping to get more response from business owners. We’re still listening, and will listen until permanent lane striping take place in the spring.”
Other city officials said they believed proper notice and discussion had taken place over the new traffic controls, which are part of improvements begun a year ago to establish truck routes and redirect big rigs from downtown streets onto less-congested arterials that are more easily navigated by truck-trailer combos.
Some of the improvements have been woven into other city and state road projects as they’ve progressed, including traffic upgrades at the west end of the Sen. George Sellar Bridge in south Wenatchee and the upcoming street overlay of Wenatchee Avenue along five blocks in downtown. Redesign of at least two intersections along Mission Street and Chelan Avenue to accommodate truck turns should be completed this spring.
Assistant City Engineer Matt Leonard said a letter was sent to business owners in June that outlined the coming changes in lane striping and elimination of the center turn lane. The letter explained that an existing left-turn lane, which loops southbound traffic from Chelan Avenue into a Mission Street lane headed north (essentially a U-turn), would be redesigned to allow traffic to cross Mission to Chehalis Street. That would allow traffic to enter Victorian Village from the north but, say tenants, make navigating the tight parking lot a tricky procedure.
Soon after, said Leonard, the City Council held a discussion on the traffic changes at which Jeepers owner Buchmann questioned the proposed modifications. Records show he told councilmembers that about 90 percent of his customers drive south from the downtown area, and elimination of the center turn lane would substantially hurt his business.
Buchmann, Slack at Nail Spa Academy and Rodriguez at El Abuelo said much of the spontaneous drive-up, walk-in traffic to their businesses disappeared with installation of the traffic controls.
“No question, the traffic change has made getting here kind of a hassle,” said Allison Womack, Wenatchee, a customer at Nail Spa Academy. “I had an appointment, so I was determined to be here for it, but I still had to drive several blocks down to turn around and head back. If I were a walk-in customer? It might definitely deter me.”
Meanwhile, Slack and Rodriguez said talk of a lawsuit could be gaining traction among Victorian Village property owners. Nothing’s definite yet, they said, but they know property owners have discussed ways to improve access to the commercial development with better signs, better-designed traffic controls or, if necessary, some kind of legal pressure.
Tonya Pygott, owner of the salon A Shear Obsession, sighed, “It’s a royal pain in the backside that’s definitely hurt business here. We’re mostly appointment-based, so we’re not suffering too badly. But businesses that rely on walk-in traffic have it the worst.”
She added, “The whole situation with these (traffic controls) is ridiculous. It’s not like we have a pile of wrecked trucks out there. Traffic seemed to be moving pretty well before the change.”