A retailer’s guide to surviving road construction

Feb. 24, 2020

This paid piece is sponsored by the South Dakota Retailers Association.

South Dakota has two seasons: winter and road construction. It’s an old joke but definitely rings true.

Many business owners say they’d rather deal with Old Man Winter than with construction. There might be intermittent bursts of lousy weather in the winter, but everyone is in the same boat, and once the snow is cleared, customers are eager to get out and can easily make their way to businesses again. With road construction on the other hand, customers tend to avoid the area at all costs, and it can feel like the disruption goes on forever.

If road construction is in your future, there are steps you can take to help ease the process.

Having a say in the process

When businesses along Mount Rushmore Road in Rapid City saw a need for major reconstruction in 2005, they knew they needed to do two things: Convince the state the project was needed, and figure out what they could do to make construction less painful for the businesses along the road.

Businesses banded together to attend Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, or STIP, meetings and to make contact with Department of Transportation commissioners and other people who had a hand in setting construction priorities. Within a year, they were successful in getting their project on the state’s five-year plan.

Sammi Nelson of Black Hills Bagels, Bob Rick of Bob’s 66 and vice president of the Mount Rushmore Road Group and Debra Jensen of Black Hills Bagels and president of the group were among those who worked to ease the disruption of the construction project, which was completed in 2018.

Wanting to make sure other businesspeople and the community were on board with the project, they talked to stakeholders, city and state officials, customers and others.

They had posters produced at a local print shop to show what the road looked like and their vision of what a revamped roadway could look like. With those visuals, other businesses and the public started to embrace the project.

Surviving construction

The next step was to make sure the multiyear road construction project didn’t put them all out of business.

Several businesses worked together to develop a Road Construction Survival Guide designed to be a useful resource for businesses along the construction route. It contained information about the project; phone numbers for contractors, committee members, officials at City Hall and the DOT, and others; and helpful ideas for getting through it.

Debra Jensen of Black Hills Bagels, one of the business owners who were instrumental in the effort, told the South Dakota Retailers Association that part of the goal was to help businesses figure out how to use the downtime to their advantage.

“Some people would delay business improvements,” Jensen said. “Actually, if you need to repaint your place or if you need some updates or remodeling of your place, that is the perfect time to do it when everybody is under construction.”

She said businesses were encouraged to speak to their banker before construction began to get credit lined up for any special projects.

“Instead of making budget cuts,” she said, “really look at motivating your staff and yourself to be building the business while you’re under construction.”

Conventional wisdom used to be that businesses should stop advertising if road construction cut them off. Instead, Jensen said, the group talked about the importance of increased marketing to keep their businesses top-of-mind for customers.

Here are other constructive tips the group developed to keep each other motivated:

Always frame things in a positive context: “When the media or the state talks about how difficult it is to drive a road and to avoid that road, that is a killer for businesses,” Jensen explained. The group asked DOT and the city to direct people through the construction rather than away from it and were able to get the department on board with it.

Talk to the media: Designated spokespeople would talk to local media regularly, keeping their message positive. They used a philosophy of “open for business” that was consistently stressed when talking to the media, customers and government officials. “During construction, you really need to make sure they shop local, so we really hammered everyone on that,” Jensen said. “When the media would talk about what was happening on Mount Rushmore Road, they would include the fact that every business was open and to remember to shop local.”

Make it fun: The Mount Rushmore Road Group created a “Cone Man” mascot who attended events throughout the community to hand out discount cards that could be used at businesses in the construction zone.

Talk to each other: When businesses in the zone ran into problems with construction, they were encouraged to talk to each other as partners to figure out what they could do – and not to complain to customers about how construction was making it difficult to get to the business.

Stay in touch with the people making the decisions: By having a voice in making decisions that are best for your community, Jensen points out, you won’t feel as helpless and hopeless during the process.

Team up with other groups: The Mount Rushmore Road businesses collaborated with the Chamber of Commerce, Convention and Visitors Bureau and a marketing specialist when developing their Survival Guide.

Stay informed and stay involved: At the very first hint of construction, Jensen said, it’s important to get people together and start making contacts. “If you don’t get involved in the construction planning, it’s going to happen anyway, and they may not be doing the things that are best for the businesses and even the community,” she cautioned. There is power in numbers, she points out, and when several businesspeople band together to speak with one voice, the decision-makers start to listen.

Jensen said the Mount Rushmore Road Group effort proved successful. Businesses not only survived but also thrived.

“The very first year after construction, the sales tax revenue jumped up, and the valuations of the properties themselves jumped up,” she said. “We felt pretty good that we were able to get through construction and make ourselves a destination place, and a lot of businesses can say the exact same thing. Right now, I think everyone can say that business just continues to get better on Mount Rushmore Road.”

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A retailer’s guide to surviving road construction

Road construction season is coming up fast, and if your business is scheduled to be impacted you definitely need to read the advice from other retailers who have been there, done that.

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