AMESBURY — In about three weeks' time, the town's main route into Newburyport, the 1st Lt. Derek S. Hines Bridge, will close down for an 18-month repair to its aging structure.
When it does, it will surely make it more difficult for the 17,000 residents of Newburyport to find their way to downtown Amesbury, and with the Interstate 95 Whittier Bridge slated for replacement in 2013, Amesbury businesses are understandably nervous about how the two bridge projects will affect their bottom lines.
In an attempt to provide relief in the event the closures severely affect local business, the Amesbury Chamber of Commerce is urging state legislators to back a chamber bid to receive approximately $160,000 in state grant monies to help customers find Amesbury businesses amid road closures, backups and bottlenecks.
Area businesses are facing a tough road ahead, and they're going to need some help in guiding traffic around the construction zone to their front doors, chamber President Curtis Wollitz said.
"The Hines Bridge is going to be closing down in just a few weeks," Wollitz said. "When you cut off the bridge, you can't get to town."
When the Hines Bridge closed down last year because of damage incurred from a passing barge, one alternate connector — Route 1 — between Newburyport and the two communities north of the river became so snarled with traffic that public safety personnel were overwhelmed at times keeping traffic running smoothly. Locals struggled to get around the most traveled roadways, using I-95 to get to destination shopping locations in Amesbury, Salisbury and Seabrook, N.H. Though the state has assured the three stakeholder communities of Newburyport, Salisbury and Amesbury that the John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge replacement will not involve complete closures to northbound or southbound traffic, Wollitz and others are nervous.
"They keep saying there's going to be no impact," Wollitz said. "When you close down traffic on the interstate, there's an impact."
The chamber's initiative, known as "Discover Amesbury," aims to circumvent the impact of the bridge closures by "conditioning" residents of Amesbury and the Greater Newburyport area to discover Amesbury first.
"Maps highlighting alternate routes in, out and around Amesbury will be designed and distributed to every household," per the plan submitted with the town's grant application. "An aggressive consumer outreach plan and information-sharing campaign will commence in the late summer or fall of 2010."
Along with that, the chamber promises that if it's chosen to receive the grant, it will construct a "robust virtual storefront" run by the chamber, through which shoppers can navigate through town and be provided with an "uplifting" and "educational" online experience. Using modern online resources like Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin, residents will be reminded that Amesbury is open for business throughout the construction, according to the chamber.
"Here's what we have to offer, and here's how you get to us," Wollitz said. "That's how I envision it."
Wollitz said the program has some short-term goals that could be addressed by the grant monies, such as helping residents from Boston find alternate routes into town.
"If I-95 is closed off and you're coming up from Boston, you just grab 93 north to I-495," Wollitz said. "It's just five to 10 minutes longer is all."
Wollitz said the Discover Amesbury plan includes implementing signage and marketing campaigns targeted toward promoting Amesbury. Currently, Amesbury's grant application is in the hands of the state, he said. Wollitz is hoping that residents and business owners interested in supporting the chamber's bid let state Rep. Mike Costello and state Sen. Steve Baddour know how they feel. A "call to action" put out by the chamber has a form letter and the addresses of both local representatives listed for use by Discover Amesbury supporters, and Wollitz said many have submitted letters of support so far.
"The squeaky wheel gets the grease," Wollitz said. "So, if we can get the membership to communicate to the senator and representative that this is very important to this community, I think you'll see some positive, quick action take place."
Jimmy Donahue of Toy Soldier Games and Comics in Amesbury is supporting the chamber's directive.
"Obviously, it's a concern overall," said Donahue of the looming closures. "We happen to be a destination store, so we wind up with a lot of people who are specifically coming to us. The people who are on the browsing side of things, those are the ones that are going to take the biggest hit. For us, it should be a little bit easier, unless they make it almost impossible to get to us, and then, of course, it will be a different story."
While Donahue said he understands the project has to get done, he also appreciates the efforts of the chamber to minimize the impacts to his and other businesses.
"I think anything along those lines is a good idea," he said. "The thing has to get done, so anything that can be done to help us collectively is great."