JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — With “substantially complete” continuing to recede further into the future, Johnson City commissioners will consider a half-year extension Thursday for the contractor over the $33 million West Walnut Street revitalization project.
Summers-Taylor Inc. has also requested a $795,164 change order. City staff has recommended approval of both requests for work that began in the fall of 2021 and was originally set to be mainly complete by mid-July of this year. The change would push that date back to at least late January 2024.
Business owners along the route are ready for the work to be done, but those who spoke to News Channel 11 Wednesday remained highly supportive of what they still think will be a transformative project.
“I have done my share of construction projects that went over time and over budget, as they are apt to do, so it doesn’t bother me too much,” Timber restaurant co-owner Nathan Brand said as heavy equipment kicked up dust nearby. “The only comment I would have is, it needs to be worth it. It needs to be the beautiful street we all agreed we would build as a community.”
As it stands, the project’s first phase has the look of being weeks from completion, with both West Walnut and Ashe streets featuring a minimum of pavement and a lot of dust. That phase covers the section between Walnut and State of Franklin Road from Buffalo Street west to Watauga Avenue. A smaller but still significant second phase from Watauga west to University Parkway is just beginning.
City Engineer Wallace McCulloch told News Channel 11 in late January that as long as the weather permits, the city hopes to have the entire redevelopment done by the summer of 2024.
Less than a block from Timber, Tennessee Hills Brewstillery owner Stephen Callahan agreed the project would “get that corridor elevated in a way that is going to be beneficial to all businesses down there.”
But Callahan said the project is “dragging out” and that the work taking road and other infrastructure deep under the previous surface does present challenges.
“Accessibility is definitely an issue and the dust is just unbearable,” Callahan said. “Last summer we couldn’t keep the dust out of our building. People tracking it in and out … we have to have our doors open to bring equipment in and out of the brewhouse.”
Brand agreed, saying dealing with the dust was “a big labor and time suck for us. We have to clean down our patio on every nice day to get rid of all the dust, which really accumulates to an astonishing degree overnight.”
The proposal commissioners are considering offers a glimpse into what may have caused some of the delays. The extra costs in the change order include $136,000 for road and drainage excavation. Summers-Taylor asked why such a line item wasn’t in the original bid and was told “minimum excavation would only occur, which is not what is actually happening in the field,” according to a staff report.
The contractor has also had to excavate even further as they’ve encountered “poor sub-base soils” and is requesting more than $90,000 to cover that removal.
Nearly a half million dollars is requested for extra work that has included vault relocations, adding storm drain and electrical boxes, extra survey work and installing proper storm drain grates/frames.
All those plan alterations “have resulted in unexpected expense and delays,” and work on four small side streets has been added to the contract.
Along with “all the conflicts encountered to date,” the new work has resulted in slow progress. Summers-Taylor estimator Shannon Watson said the extra work just associated with the current change order has added 125 working days to the project, which equates to 189 calendar days.
Johnson City Vice Mayor Aaron Murphy told News Channel 11 he appreciates the attitude of the existing businesses along Walnut Street. He said some relief could be coming soon.
“We’re hopeful in getting the temporary asphalt down after the unsuitable soils our dug out and replaced with some good sub base and that’s compacted,” Murphy said. “We want to extend a big thank you and appreciation to our community, who’s been very patient with this project.”
Murphy said he hoped the extra 189 days would be “more than enough for the completion of this project.”
As for the hiccups that have created delays, Murphy said the unsuitable soils were a wild card.
“You move forward with hopes and intentions that everything is ‘as is,’ but when you dig in the ground and you find that’s not true, that changes everything.”
Brand said he’s heard relief could be around the corner for Timber in the way of asphalt finally returning to his section of Walnut.
“We’ve been told within the next few weeks … which would be really, really helpful,” Brand said. He pointed to nearby Campbell Street, which runs a short block between Ashe and Walnut, where the curb is built and “bumpouts” for future parking are in place.
“They have like the thin first layer of asphalt down that’s on Sevier Street as well, and once you see those go in, your heart sort of soars because it’s pretty beautiful, you know, as beautiful as concrete can be.”
Callahan is ready for those next steps to be complete where a concentration of current businesses exist, anchored by The Shamrock at Buffalo Street on one end and Tennessee Hills and Crumb Bakery on the other.
“When it’s a Friday afternoon and two out of the three access points in our parking lot are blocked, people just keep driving,” he said. “Tennessee Hills Brewstillery is doing fine. We’re not doing as good as we thought we could do down there. We knew that we would hurt a little bit but when there is days that are in our favor down there our business really moves. We’re ready to get it done.”
The change order is on the consent agenda for Thursday’s commission meeting, and the cost adjustment still would leave almost $2.5 million in the project’s contingency fund.
“We are hopeful as the city commission that it’ll be well worth it, because this will be a major hinge piece for the growth of our city in the right direction,” Murphy said.
Brand said Timber has been very busy in recent weeks despite the obstacles and said he’s grateful to live in a city that takes on projects like the one he’s in the middle of now. He expects the nearly mile-long corridor to blossom much more once the work is done.
“When the street is done and we see all these businesses, we see the bike lanes, the bricked out crosswalks, all the additional parking, the tree plantings, the reduction of the curb cuts, Ashe Street Courthouse completed, it’s just really going to be a transformed landscape,” he said. “And if this is the price we have to pay, then I accept it.”