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Businesses bypassed by new I-81 connector road have mixed reactions

Joanna Richards

Until recently, the only way to drive between Route 11 and Interstate 81 near Fort Drum was a two-lane road, Route 342. As the Army base grew, local businesses flocked there to serve the increasing traffic. But the state built an $87 million bypass to ease traffic and give military vehicles a direct route to Fort Drum’s main gate. I-781, as it’s known, opened last December. Local shop owners have had mixed reactions to the new road.

During early morning and afternoon commutes, Route 342 used to back up horribly. Now, traffic snarls have been alleviated, thanks to the new connector road. Business owners on the two roads said all that traffic used to provide great visibility, but some think it also kept people from stopping by.

Sonny Moody owns The Garden Center.

“Well, we find lately that it was so busy, that a lot of people just didn't want to come in, because they couldn't get back out,” he said. “So I think it's going to help us a lot. Because we've always been a destination, so now when you come here, you can drive in, do what you want to do, and drive back out without waiting 10 minutes.”

Moody says the trick is to push more advertising out to soldiers and their families. His shop has been around for 23 years, he says, but the military population hasn't. So keeping good business is a matter of making sure they know about his shop, even if they're not driving by as much as they used to. He says the same goes with people driving south from Canton and Potsdam.

Walt Van Tassel used to own one U-Lock-It self-storage facility, but added a second location to increase his visibility when he heard about plans for the new road.

“Two years ago, when the state finally decided they were going to put that road in, we made a decision to get located over there, and then built that facility over there,” he said. “So we can move people from there to here, to try and keep storage units full in both places.”

The population around Fort Drum is by its very nature transient. Many soldiers leave after several years. Van Tassel's worried that the next crop of soldiers may not know his business, but he says his second location should help with that.

Nearby, Eric Ngyuen owns Casablanca Nail Spa in a plaza next to Super Walmart. It's on a small stretch of Route 11 that's also bypassed by the new connector road. Around three o'clock on a Friday, business was slow – and that's unusual, he says.

“I've never thought of it, but now that you bring it up, I think yes, I think it does put a number on us, because we've never been this slow before, and it has been really bad for our business,” he said.

In the same plaza, Anthony Fiorentino, of Carvel Icecream, says he thinks some businesses in the city of Watertown will benefit from the new road.

“The connector road, I think, if anything, it would help the Arsenal Street or the Coffeen Street businesses, only because it's just a quicker way to Route 81,” he said. “You know, zip down 81, get off the Arsenal, get off the Coffeen Street, as opposed to coming down Route 11 and Route 342 and over that way.”

Fiorentino isn't too worried about his business, though. He says his location near Super Walmart and some strong local restaurants means he should be in pretty good shape.

At the UPS Store in White Pines Plaza on Route 11, Ron Klusacek isn't too worried, either.

“We're such a point-type destination business that customers are going to come to us, regardless of the type of traffic, you know, the routing or anything like that, just because they have a need for our specific type of business,” he said.

Many local business owners say they plan to do more advertising. One way is to put up billboards along the new connector road.