Downtown is hot, dusty, and congested. And there's no shade because all the historic maple trees had to be torn down.
Yet despite the inconvenience, the mess, and past run-ins with state transportation officials, residents and business owners are taking the disruption in stride.
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The Big Dig in Canton is reaching its climax, just as students return to college campuses, kids go back to school, and another 4,000 to 5,000 vehicles are on the road.
Jackhammers pound away right in the middle of Canton’s main intersection, by the post office and the village park. Tom Maroun, the engineer in charge of this whole project for the state Department of Transportation, peers down into a trench some ten feet deep. He shows me a messy spaghetti of pipes and wires that looks like a mix of a jigsaw puzzle and an archeological dig: A gas main, a water line, and several others. Maroun says his crews have to get under the mess to tie into the sewer.
So if you’ve been wondering why Court Street’s been closed for more than a week and traffic creeps through Canton, there’s your answer.
Two guys peer with flashlights into an ancient manhole made of actual bricks. “I’d hate to guess how old they are”, they say, “but they’re quite old.”
The reason Canton’s getting the $10 million “total reconstruction” treatment, instead of a modest repaving, is the water and sewer lines underground are literally falling apart. Tom Maroun says they can’t even be shut off if the water lines break, and the valves don’t work in the village.
He says in the end, the infrastructure underground will be modern and new. And what we see above ground will look better than ever – better traffic flow, cleaner curb cuts, new sidewalks and trees, tasteful wrought-iron railings and lampposts.
But for now, a lot of Cantonites are feeling like resident Jeremiah Smith, who says “It’s a real pain, man. You can’t go through downtown pretty much. It’s all tore up.”
People are inconvienced, annoyed, sure. But generally not angry. Which is kind of amazing when you consider just a few years ago, residents were literally yelling at DOT guys at public meetings.
Marilyn Mintener owns the Pear Tree gift shop downtown. She also used to be Canton’s mayor, and she says the DOT’s original plan was “to lower the hill on East Main Street and we all went ballistics over that.” But she says the DOT compromised on the residential area east of downtown. And she says the agency’s been a good communicator since the digging began: “The unknowns always place everybody in fear. But in this case they held meetings, we talked through things, we saw the maps. I have to say, no complaints from me.”
Mintener’s even sanguine about the most controversial and critiqued part of the construction so far: The removal of dozens of trees, some close to a hundred years old. The DOT’s Tom Maroun says the trees’ root systems wouldn’t have survived the digging. Mintner had the maple outside her store planted in memory of her mother, but “having watched them out here the last three months, I can tell you they were absolutely correct. Is it an ideal situation, of course not. Nobody likes to lose a tree with any concern for the environment, or just the beauty of a beautiful tree, but I truthfully believe there was nothing we could do to save the trees.”
Another big worry was how the construction was going to affect businesses downtown. Many are already struggling with the bad economy. Some feared they’d have to close. But so far, so good:“Um, it really hasn’t affected us too much”, says Meg Martin. Martin co-owns the Hot Tamale burrito place on Main Street. She says all those idling drivers waiting for the flag woman to wave them through may even help, “cause they get stuck in traffic for so long, they make a joke out of it and say, oh, we’ve been waiting so long, we decided to come in and try your place out.”
Across the street, Steven Russell at the Hair Designs hair studio had a special business card made up. “It says ‘Hair Designs, we are open during construction. Give yourself extra time. We’re worth the wait.’ And it’s got a picture of a construction guy in the front, digging the road down.”
Russell says something had to give with Canton’s aging infrastructure and crumbling sidewalks. Dave Curry, owner of a popular bar right downtown, is the village mayor. He doesn’t hesitate one bit when I ask him what he thinks of all the craters and dump trucks and backhoes clogging Main Street: “Progress”, he says. “Progress coming in the future. It’s gonna look nice and I don’t think anybody’s going to be sorry with the traffic flow or the looks of it when they’re done. It’ll be really nice for Canton.”
The DOT says it’ll begin the above-ground work next week – redoing the road and sidewalks downtown. All the sidewalks will be torn up and replaced. That’s scheduled to be done by winter: That is one thing businesses are worried about is that the construction doesn’t interfere with the holiday shopping season.