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Bridge delays costly for Milltown business

Just a thought

July 20, 2011
Every once in a while, I run across a story that is nothing short of sad. And there's times when I feel obligated to tell one of those stories. This is one of them.

A few years ago, Robyn and Jerry Carman bought the Milltown Mini Mart. Their hard work, dedication and easy-going personalities turned the business into a venture that, up until last year, was beginning to pay off as they built their customer base and worked to make a place for themselves in the business community in Crawford County. They created jobs for four Milltown residents and helped supply the needs of both the community and those who came to canoe and fish the Blue River.

For years, Milltown residents, and especially Kathleen Roggenkamp and a few others, worked diligently to get the old one-lane bridge that spanned the Blue River, replaced. When an agreement was finally reached with Harrison County on its part of the project and Crawford County was able to furnish its share, plans for a new bridge proceeded to the design and engineering stage, and finally, in October 2009, construction began on the project.

The plan was to keep the old bridge open until the new bridge, which was being built beside it, was completed. That would have kept traffic flowing in and out of the downtown Milltown area as usual. But something happened on the way to a new bridge: the old bridge, after it was discovered to have a crack in one of the main beams, was condemned and the bridge was closed. Traffic to the downtown area diminished to a trickle. And so did business at the Milltown Mini Mart.

Adding insult to injury, the construction company that was building the new bridge ran into difficulties throughout the project. A job that was projected to take only a few weeks evolved into a series of problems that delayed the completion date month after month. The Carmans never flinched but kept their employees and did their best to keep the bills paid until the bridge situation improved, trying to ride out the storm and survive.

And they did survive but not without sacrifices. The Carmans stopped giving themselves a paycheck in order to pay their help and keep the utilities and other bills paid.

"We put our heart and soul into the Mini Mart," Robyn told me. "We were determined to stick it out. We told our suppliers that things would be better when the bridge was finished and business returned."

But no one anticipated that the bridge work, that began in October, would continue until the following July. And the Carmans suffered in silence, never letting on that the loss of business was crushing them. They put everything they owned into the business, and it still wasn't enough. Through no fault of their own, they fell farther and farther behind as the months passed. They watched as a wonderful new bridge began to take shape across the Blue River and their owns dreams began to fall apart just yards away.

County commissioners in both Crawford and Harrison counties put pressure on the construction company to complete the job as soon as possible, and there was a penalty involved if the company wasn't able to complete the job in the allotted time. When the bridge finally opened last July, Harrison County waived its part of the late penalty, but Crawford County stuck to the deal and demanded restitution from the construction company. They eventually settled for less than the original agreed upon penalty, but the company eventually agreed to a penalty of more than $30,000.

The Carmans' customers eventually returned and business got better, but the hole that swallowed everything they had was too deep to climb out of. The couple tried every idea they could come up with, and every idea friends and their many loyal customers had, to get funds to help catch up. But they need more collateral to borrow money from lending institutions, and everything they have is tied up in their store.

"We're bill-paying people," Robyn said. "We've always paid our way. And now, we have to feel like this is a personal failure, and we're ashamed. Our customers have come back, but we can't recover. It was just too much loss. We have to have help or, in the next month or two, there will be another empty building in Milltown."

Few businesses could suffer the loss of most of their income for that many months and survive. The Milltown Mini Mart is no exception.

The Carmans attended a county council meeting last week and asked if any of the penalty money for the late completion of the bridge was available to local businesses, but the council steered them toward the county commissioners for answers.

The county didn't suffer any financial losses for the late completion. The delay affected the people of Milltown who had to drive farther due to the detour for several months, but drivers' financial losses were somewhat limited. The biggest financial losses were incurred by the Carmans. According to county officials, the county didn't really get back $30,000 in penalty payments; rather, the penalty was deducted from the overall cost of the bridge. And, as some council members noted, if the county were to help one business survive, it may be obligated to help others. But one has to ask, how many bridge projects have put local merchants out of business? And does the county have any obligation when one of its projects have a negative financial impact on a local business owner? If that had been a state project, most county officials would probably agree that the state would have some responsibility to a business owner. Why would the county's responsibility be any different?

Crawford County Councilman Steve Bartels agreed to, on his own time, help the Carmans look for possible solutions. That promise illuminated a spark of hope in the Carmans' eyes that evening. And it's my hope that the county will take a hard look at the problem as well. The Carmans, just innocent bystanders caught up in the cost of progress, have suffered enough. And their failure would only put another nail in Milltown's coffin.

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