Construction Chaos

Business is down as the county widens River Road

El Corral Steakhouse has weathered many storms along East River Road since it opened in the early half of the 20th century. The latest: the approximately $22.5 million Pima County road project called the "River Bend Roadway Improvements."

Despite a drastic loss of business, utility shut-offs and a cluttered parking lot, El Corral's owner, Agro Land and Cattle Company, says they will survive. Too bad its customers don't know El Corral is still open.

"We were getting phone calls asking us when we were going to open again," said Deborah Backous, president of Agro Land and Cattle.

The county-funded project will alleviate stress on the aging two-lane River Road by widening it to four lanes between Campbell Avenue and the Jewish Community Center, and by connecting it to a new section of Alvernon Way, which will carry traffic over the Rillito River via a new bridge. The project also features paved shoulders and sidewalks.

But construction has not always gone smoothly. Backous recently took a break to examine the latest incident: an afternoon gas-main problem in front of the building that left her ovens off until about 5 p.m.

"We were wondering how we were going to get the baked potatoes ready, but they got it back in time," she said.

Backous gazed into the dark trench where the break occurred as customers' vehicles slid over the part-dirt, part-asphalt road into the dusty restaurant parking lot. One car making a right turn into the restaurant was nearly rear-ended as the car behind it slid.

"Oh, we see accidents all the time," said El Corral restaurant manager Sally Young. She recalled an incident less than a month before when a car slammed into a wall.

"And our clientele aren't all young. A lot of our older regulars won't deal with this," said Young.

A huge dirt patch left by a sewer-line replacement in mid-October--that later had to be redone after failing inspection--made navigating the front of the restaurant parking lot even more difficult.

Because of all the obstacles, El Corral has claimed a staggering loss of business. While El Corral management would not give any specific amount, they did say the business decrease was substantial enough to negate the need to hire staff to replace those who left during the summer.

"It's been tough on all of us, and we're a family here, so that's extra hard," Young said.

El Corral server Adam Condit said he picked up a job at another restaurant a few months ago to make some extra money. "I definitely would not have been able to make ends meet by just working here," Condit said. "I used to, but not with it like the way it was over the summer. It's been rough."

El Corral management says they understand the project, which was started in the spring of 2005, was inevitable. But more important is the completion date. A fact sheet posted on a county Web site says the county transportation department anticipated completion early this fall. However, Pima County Supervisor Ann Day says she thought all along that the project would be done by the holiday season.

"That's all I ever heard," Day said.

Or maybe it's early January. That's what Priscilla S. Cornelio, county transportation director, told the Weekly. She also denied knowing about any previous statements that at least the Alvernon bridge would be open by fall. But the online fact sheet's not alone: An April 6, 2006 Arizona Daily Star article--written when the project began significantly altering traffic flow--quoted a spokesperson from county contractor Ashton Construction Co. as saying the bridge would be open to traffic in "early fall."

To the contractor's credit, a fierce July 31 storm flooded the Rillito and may have put work behind, Cornelio said.

Backous says she wishes there had been "more communication a long time ago, being able to see plans, a long time ago." But the county says Backous and Agro owner (and famed sculptor) Daniel S. Bates were briefed and offered strategy sessions with a county-contracted marketing firm. Those offers were turned down, said county transportation department spokeswoman Annabelle Quihuis.

"They've come to our construction trailer, and for the most part, they've been real good about bringing their concerns, and we've met them. We understand how hard this construction impacts business," Quihuis said.

Cornelio said her department responded to El Corral's concerns about improper signage by placing white-on-blue signs that read "business access" at entrances to all businesses along the road. Backous, however, requested personalized signs.

"But that's not the county's policy to do personalized signs for anyone," Quihuis said.

However, the Jewish Community Center apparently received personal signs.

Quihuis and Cornelio both claimed the different signage was apparently due to a zoning issue. (County Chief Zoning Inspector Patricia A. Thomas did not return phone calls from the Weekly. ) El Corral management has since placed their own personalized signs, one at the intersection of River Road and Campbell Avenue, and the other next to either entrance.

After an interview with the Weekly, Day visited Young at the restaurant and provided her with updates on the project. Young said she was told by Day to be grateful that her restaurant wasn't sitting along Interstate 10, which is facing a three-year project by the Arizona Department of Transportation.

"What does that have to do with getting our customers back in here?" Young said.

Plucky server Condit had a better idea.

"Sometimes I look out there, and I'm like, 'I'll go grab a shovel and start helping,'" Condit said. "Together, we'll get this over with."

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