EASTON — Contractors extended operations on a telecommunications project deeper into North Harrison Street this week, drawing a furious backlash from small business owners who own shops on the road and are seeing a decline in Christmas holiday business during the busiest week of the year.
Yellow-vested construction workers, traffic cones, bulldozers and building signage extended all the way across North Harrison Street from Gravel Alley toward the beginning of Mill Street. Contractors are working on behalf of Verizon to build a 5G fiber optics network for the town, which requires deep digging and underground installation.
A long and narrow ditch ran down the road, penned in on both sides by cones — slowing traffic and turning away some passersby from Easton Antiques & Art Gallery. Tim Quinn, the owner, stood outside his shop and frowned at the construction.
Every year, during the week before Christmas, “this place is rocking,” Quinn said. But after construction workers extended equipment and operations in front of his building on Sunday, the owner has served just a few customers at a time, when 10 or more is his typical crowd.
“Look at it,” he said. “The dirt is done. No one is coming to downtown Easton now. Word’s out.”
Quinn estimates he will lose “thousands” of dollars because of the semi-closure of the road. He blamed both Verizon and the town for allowing construction during the week before Christmas
“I wouldn’t have cared if they did it next week, but this week I truly care about it because it’s the biggest retail week of the year,” said Quinn. “We had no say in it, nothing. That’s a really horrible way of thinking of your downtown. The damage is done.”
Contractors are expected to work until Dec. 31, according to town manager Donald Richardson, meaning business could be slow for shop owners through the holidays.
A permit for the construction project was approved on Oct. 1, and Verizon contracted with Parkside Utility Construction, which subcontracted to another, smaller construction business, Hacreta.
Workers had started the project by November, beginning at Gravel Alley. No complaints were voiced then because that area is mostly town property and some real estate offices, Richardson said.
When construction was slated to be moved down past Goldsborough Street and merchant shops, Richardson advised Verizon to notify business owners, growing concerned they would be blindsided by the move.
”That was one of the reasons that I had our staff reach out to (Verizon) last week,” Richardson said. “We did also ask them to consolidate their operations.”
But merchant owners were unhappy with the timing and the seemingly limitless construction that continues well until nightfall. Many of the permit requirements for the project only involve traffic control, material use, and coordination with the town engineer — there are no requirements on when contractors can work.
No restrictions were placed on the permit, so there are no limits on when contractors can work so they don’t impede business operations.
“Nor would there normally be,” Richardson said. “That is not commonplace.”
Owners continue to complain about the construction, pointing to loud drilling noises and equipment moving about, as well as the complete erasure of parking and traffic delays resulting from the semi-road closure.
Beth Haschen, who owns the Levity of Easton boutique on North Harrison Street, said she tried to speak to the town council about her growing concerns. Council President Megan Cook and Councilmember Don Abbatiello tried to help, Haschen added, but “it was just too late.”
Haschen explained that the town engineer did not communicate with them about the construction work, though she noted “it’s not his job.”
“There’s just no communication between the town and the business owners to find out what is going to impact us or not impact us,” she said. “When we finally get our communication flowing, it won’t be a problem anymore.”
She’s taken a hit in business sales this week, too.
“My very loyal customers have actually found a place to park and have come down,” she explained, but new customers are not coming in at all because of parking concerns and avoidance of the semi-blocked off road.
“One thing about retail is that during high-traffic situations, I don’t want my customers to think too much, to have to think about where to park,” she said. “I want them to come down and have a seamless experience and be able to get their shopping done.”
It is unclear who exactly the 5G project will benefit. Lindel Psu, a spokesperson for contractors Parkside Utility Construction, said it is “a 5G update fiber that is going almost everywhere for everybody.”
A number of small business owners have said the project was initiated for two people in town. To even access 5G, you need to purchase a phone with a special chip inside.
Richardson, the town manager, did not have details on the project or its intended benefits.
Psu estimates that most of the work will be completed in a few days, and definitely by next week.
He explained that construction extended down North Harrison Street so late, and around the holidays, because of multiple delays: bad weather and a sidewalk improvement project from the town.
“I’m aware the location (and timing) is just horrible,” Psu said. “But we’re working as quickly and safely as possible.”
It’s too late for small business owners like Quinn. He continues to express frustration with the town for allowing this to happen under its watch.
Quinn met multiple times with the mayor, but was consistently told that scheduling errors had caused the situation and that it was too late to do anything now. The lack of communication and mismanagement from town officials surprised him.
“These people have been running this town for decades, they gotta know it’s got to have an impact,” Quinn said. “They just didn’t think, or they just didn’t care. They didn’t care enough to think. That’s pathetic. It’s hard enough with this coronavirus and people not wanting to go out anyway.”
Quinn said this year has already been tough on local businesses because of the COVID-19 pandemic and all its impact. He said the ill-timed construction disruptions are adding to those challenges. “It’s adding insult to injury,” he said.
David and Juliette have six young children, ages 5 to 10, between them. David had just started a new career as a commercial driver when COVID-19 shut everything down and he lost his job. They have been trying to survive on Juliette’s single income and the small amount he receives from unemployment.
In October, David started taking classes at Chesapeake College in hopes of finding a new, better job. Their cars are old and frequently break down. Between paying bills and trying to keep the cars running so they can work and go to school, there’s no money left for Christmas gifts.
Your donation to The Star Democrat‘s Brighter Christmas Fund could help David and Juliette and their family during the holiday season.
The Brighter Christmas Fund is a 501(c)(3) charity, and tax-deductible donations, which also help other families in need on the Mid-Shore, may be sent to The Brighter Christmas Fund, c/o The Star Democrat, P.O. Box 600, Easton, MD 21601. Donations also may be made online via credit card or Paypal at www.brighterchristmasfund.org. Click the “Donate” button. For more information about the Fund, call 410-200-1884.
The total to date is: $63,064.75.
Those sharing the spirit of giving with others this holiday include:
In memory of Fran Young
In memory of Mark A. Caplan
Leo and Jean Nollmeyer
In memory of my loving husband Ken Phillips
In memory of my granddaughter Jenapher Glime
In memory of Ned Harrison
Beverly and Mick Edgell
Rick and Jan Hynson
Choptank Electric Trust
Heartfelt remembrances of Nancy Matthews Rice and Nancy Harrington
In memory of Amelia and Charlie Mufson
Pat and Bob Hinkel
In loving memory of my son Ben Marshall
In honor of OVFD and Town of Oxford workers from Emilie Knud-Hansen
Stanley Carl Roe
Anne and Cal Butt
In memory of Carolyn, Dorothy and Harold
In memory of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Wien
Richard and Mary Ann Stephenson
In memory of Benny Fox and Naomi Behrens
In honor of Dr. and Mrs. William Albers
TRAPPE — From individual deliveries to packaged handouts at the back of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, volunteers distributed 1,000 pounds of venison this month to 65 families, giving them some help for the holidays during a pandemic that has forced mass layoffs and furloughs.
The Warm Hearts/Warm Tummies campaign was established and led for the first time by Charlotte Meyer, a board member for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. She and more than 10 volunteers donated the bulk of the venison on Saturday, Dec. 19, working through the morning wind and wintry cold to get the food into people’s homes.
Volunteers drove directly to homes in Trappe and the surrounding area, then serviced those who pulled up to the church for a box of carefully wrapped meat that also came with a side: a candy cane.
Individuals were eligible to collect anywhere from 10 to 50 pounds of food, giving them a strong meal cushion ahead of holiday celebrations that are going to be tougher or tighter this year for those with a shrinking budget.
”So many more families are not able to work, have been laid off, or are working fewer hours because of the pandemic,” Meyer said. “I actually walked the food pantry line at Scott’s United Methodist Church, and talked to each family. I got a clear picture that hungry families are a real issue in our county. Maybe more so than people have any idea.”
Families were extremely grateful, thanking the volunteers as they packed the venison into their cars. William Freeman loaded 10 pounds of venison into the back of his minivan at the church.
Freeman called the donation a “beautiful thing.” Growing up, he always ate venison, so he was delighted to make some spaghetti or burgers with one of his favorite meats.
”Tastes like chicken,” he said, laughing at the joke. “I don’t hunt, but I eat this stuff. Venison is like my beef.”
This year has been especially hard for Freeman. He’s retired and doesn’t get too much money from social security and retirement funds. Besides, the pandemic has kept him locked up in his home since he’s more at risk of developing severe symptoms from the novel coronavirus. Sometimes, he’s penned up without much food.
”I’m not working,” he said. “And it’s getting to the point that because I’m older, (COVID-19) is stopping me from going to the store.”
Clara Franks also grabbed 10 pounds of meat. But she had a different idea: she was going to pay it forward by donating the meat to others in need.
”There are members of my church who I know need food,” she said.
Meyer from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church decided she would spearhead the food campaign as deer season began in late November. Depending on the region and hunting weapon used, dates differ, but for firearms hunters in public lands, deer season won’t end until Jan. 10. That gave Meyer plenty of time to reach out to local hunters and ask for donations.
”A number of hunters are working with an overload” of deer, she said. “It’s a perfect opportunity to be able to work with hunters and farmers to cull the deer population while making sure meat is put to the best use possible — meeting a need for our community.”
Meyer said the immediate response was “overwhelmingly positive” with “hundreds of hunters showing up with deer.” Many of the hunters donating this year were youth, including Jackson Diefendorfer, a 13-year-old hunter living in Trappe. He donated a white-tailed deer that he hunted with a shotgun.
”I just wanted to help people,” he said. “People don’t have food.”
In the end, the church accepted 20 deer for 1,000 pounds of meat. The slain deer were shipped to Frase’s Meat Shop in Preston to be cut and processed. As the deer came in and was prepped, the food went out the door to families, all throughout December.
Meyer put the word out by informing 150 locals about the Warm Hearts/Warm Tummies campaign at Scott’s United Methodist Church’s weekly food pantry. She also sent fliers to White Marsh Elementary School.
Meyer and her volunteer staff served 48 families in Talbot County, but after the campaign ended on Saturday, some meat was leftover. Volunteers like Chris Harrison made sure that the meat went to 17 more families in need in Dorchester County.
”This is about taking care of the kids and the community,” said Harrison. “Food insufficiency is something people don’t know much about.”
While venison is not the most popular meat, it was certainly in plentiful supply — and affordable. The meat was donated, but some costs were incurred from Frase’s Meat Shop and operational fees, and Meyer was on a $1,000 fund from the Diocese of Easton.
Yet the effort was more than successful, Meyer explained, with many overjoyed just to get free food during a public health and economic crisis.
She said the meat is healthy, too, which many are thinking about now during a pandemic that affects those with obesity or pre-existing conditions the most. Venison is very lean but has high quality protein, is lower in saturated fat than other red meat, and is a good source of iron. It can be used, like beef, for many recipes.
Franks, who grabbed 10 pounds for herself and others, said she didn’t like venison the first time she tried it.
”First time I ate it, it was in a loaf,” she said. “I didn’t like it. After I ate it they told me what it was, and I was like, ‘Ohhhh.’”
Freeman had a simpler take on venison. ”Back in my day, we ate whatever was on the table.”
Both agreed the meat would go a long way to get food on the table to families for the holidays, and they could cook it in everything from stew to lasagna.
Along with the packaged meat, Meyer delivered a notice letter informing families how to handle venison when cooking, explaining that it’s much leaner than beef, and “a bit of beaten egg or regular milk will help the venison come together.”
Jean Sard, from Trappe, grabbed 40 pounds from volunteers on Saturday. She plans to share the venison with family and friends for Christmas and cook chili with the meat.
Sard and her family have struggled this winter to get food on the table, so when she heard about the campaign through the church, she breathed a sigh of relief.
Sard knew it would give relatives and close friends some much-needed assistance as the country heads into a particularly bleak winter — with positive cases of COVID rising, businesses shutting down again, and relief still months away as the vaccine slowly rolls out.
”This,” she repeated twice, “is such a wonderful thing.”