NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ — Small businesses in town cannot catch a break.
It’s been over a month since the Passaic Street Bridge has been closed for remediation and many of New Providence small businesses have lost a significant number of customers.
Business owners in town, including Jim Barth of Barth Market; Jimmy Vardas of Prestige Diner; Paolo Vieira of Paolos’ Kitchen and Stan Dunn of M & M Liquors report a significant downturn in revenues at their stores since the Passaic Street Bridge closure in early September.
An important traffic artery connecting New Providence to Chatham Township, the bridge was closed for remediation after being deemed “structurally deficient “by the New Jersey Department of Transportation, according to Union County Communications Director Sebastian D’Elia.
“This is a structurally deficient bridge that needs to be immediately replaced as per the state,” explained D’Elia. “This is not something that can wait, it has to be done.”
The bridge closure couldn’t come at a worse time for small businesses in New Providence reeling from economic impact of the coronavirus.
“First there was a pandemic -- everyone had been struggling,” said owner of NP Fuel Don Murphy. “Then as business started to pick up, the road closed, and we’re back to square one again.”
Construction on the Passaic Street Bridge from River Road in Chatham to Commonwealth Avenue in New Providence is scheduled to take at least a year, according to the county.
Numerous business owners in town spoke to the new economic reality ushered in by the bridge’s closing.
Jim Barth of Barth Market emphasized the importance of Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Holiday Season to his business.
“Customer counts are down 20 percent,” noted Barth. “It’s a major impact at the wrong time of the year.”
The New Providence business community depends on customers from Chatham and Madison crossing the Passaic Street Bridge to get into town and spend money.
According to business owners in town, the established detours offer a major inconvenience for customers coming from across the Passaic River. Business owners, moreover, cite traffic congestion as another deterrence.
But based on accounts of business operators in town, these would-be customers from across the bridge are finding closer more convenient purchasing options with the closure.
“Having to take these detours with the backed-up traffic, people will just shop what’s just easiest for them,” said Barth.
“There are only two other ways to get over, and they are both packed,” said Murphy of NP Fuel, whose customer volume was back up 75 percent since the pandemic only to then fall to 60 percent since the bridge's closure. “I could look out on the street and see nobody driving.”
Paolo Vieira of Paolo’s Kitchen attributed the loss of 30 percent of his business to the Passaic River Bridge closing.
“I get a lot of customers from Chatham, Madison and everyone up in that area,” said Vieira.
Vieira depends on a strong lunch crowd. Especially the patronage of contractors, landscapers and other workers coming from Chatham and Madison during Paolo’s Kitchen critical lunch hours.
Perhaps the best glimpse into the overall economic impact of the closure comes from M & M Liquors.
M & M Liquors’ business benefited from the pandemic, explained Dunn. With the closure of restaurants and people eating at home, those looking for alcohol had to purchase it from a liquor store.
Dunn said all the business he did during the pandemic was “erased” after the bridge closure.
“I know who my customers are, they come in from Chatham, and they’re just not coming in here now,” said Dunn.
According to Union County Communications Director Sebastian D’Elia, he anticipates construction on the bridge will be done by summer 2021, but said a project like this could take up to a year and a half. D’Elia added the Union County would be “the lead agency” overseeing the remediation project, but that both Union and Morris County received 1 million dollars from the state.
D’Elia said that work has begun on the bridge. This comes as many in the business community questioned whether remediation had commenced on the bridge.
The project goal is a bridge deck replacement, noted D’Elia.
Underwater work has been going on at the bridge in addition to the railings being removed, according to D’Elia. He also said saw cutting is scheduled to begin the week of Monday, Oct. 19.
D’Elia said there were some COVID-19 related delays, but that the project is “full steam ahead.”
Jimmy Vardas, owner of the Prestige Diner, another business affected by the bridge closure, urged his community to stand with New Providence businesses in the downtown.
“Such events can be catastrophic for certain businesses in the downtown,” said. Vardas. “This is a time when we can all support our local businesses -- reach out to people and politicians that we know to resolve this matter."