Tidal wave of fear and dismay over waterline project swamps city meeting
M.P. Regan
Wednesday, June 22, 2022

The Summer of 2022 was supposed to herald a long-awaited return to normal for downtown Dillon after two years of pandemic concerns and restrictions.

Or maybe better than that—a new, bigger and better normal with updated infrastructure and increased energy and prosperity powered by the influx of new residents and visitors to the area.

But instead of a revived, bustling local business and cultural center, downtown Dillon the past few months looked more like the set of a sci-fi horror movie—one about aliens invading and occupying the planet with large, menacing machines, distracting residents with empty promises, confounding them with incomprehensible behaviors, and sucking up valuable resources as people slowly began to recognize that something was terribly wrong.

Last week, some downtown business owners and city councilpersons had finally seen too much—too much disruption to their operations, too much uncertainty, too much in the way of unfulfilled expectations from the 2021 Waterline Replacement project that has stretched into 2022 and down a variety of detours.

And they had finally not seen enough in the way of progress or heard enough in the way of explanations as to why things had gone so far sideways on the multi-million dollar project.

And when they could reasonably expect it to get straightened out.

“I am just baffled, I am amazed— how did we get so far out of whack from the original intent of that project?” asked downtown business owner Ron Carroll during last week’s Dillon City Council meeting on the project aiming to replace thousands of feet of aging cast-iron waterlines running underneath the city, including large swaths of downtown—an area the project was supposed to be through before the end of spring.

“I’ve got a copy of the original timeline. The timeline said April 27, they were supposed to have our block dug up, the main laid and buried and re-graveled and onto the next block,” said Carroll at the city council meeting of mid-June, a time by which the project was set to have finished its work downtown, according what the manager of the construction company performing most of that work told people at a meeting this spring.

“Our block has been shut down for eight weeks. It has had a devastating effect on my business and on the other seven businesses that are all within 100 feet of each other,” said Carroll, owner of Emporium 406 on Idaho Street in the heart of downtown Dillon.

“I know that we need new waterlines. I know that our infrastructure is old and that there are delays and surprises beneath our streets,” wrote Debbie Sporich, another business owner on Idaho Street, in a letter read at last week’s city council meeting.

“There are also things I don’t understand. Why does the block in front of my store remain closed for two months? Why when this block is closed is there no access to our alley?” wrote the owner of The Bookstore on a block of North Idaho Street that’s closed most of the spring, but not dug up to replace its portion of waterline.

“I don’t understand why they are hop-scotching around,” said City Council President Don Hand of the project’s tendency to pogo to new blocks before finishing its work on a block it’s currently working on, making it even more difficult to navigate downtown Dillon.

“I understand they are doing little projects here, here, here, here, and here. But why not do the whole stretch, get that done, and then go off and do those little projects?”

“With the maze of torn-up streets, our customers are as confused as we are,” added Sporich.

“Why were we told at a meeting that there would be updates, there would be people walking into our businesses, explaining what was happening and what would happen. Why has this not happened? Why has there been little communication with businesses?” wondered Sporich, who has owned and operated The Bookstore for more than three decades.

“Six months ago,” recalled City Councilperson Mary Jo O’Rourke, who two years ago began expressing concerns about getting the project in and out of the downtown business district before the start of peak summer shopping season there began, “we talked about that it would be the city that would be doing weekly updates for the businesses downtown.

“We even talked about creating a Facebook group that would be downtown businesses affected by the water and sewer line, and that was supposed to happen, so that downtown businesses would be apprised on a weekly basis, and that was supposed to be done by the city,” continued O’Rourke while looking at City Director of Operations Todd Hazelbaker and Mayor John McGinley.

“Mr. Hazelbaker and Mayor McGinley, why didn’t that happen? We agreed to do that six months ago. You two agreed to do that. Why didn’t that happen?”

“What the engineers tell us, we pass on. And if they don’t tell us the truth,” replied the mayor.

“There was an idea that you would speak on the radio every Monday morning and talk about what was completed last week, what the plans were for this week. I haven’t heard that yet,” added O’Rourke.

“Mayor, didn’t Kipp say that he would give you a weekly update? Has he done that?” asked City Councilperson Diane Armstrong, referring to Kipp Shumway, general manager of Mungus Company, which is performing most of the physical work on the project.

“He’ll do it for a week or two, then he falls back down on it,” said McGinley of Shumway, who had arranged to give the Dillon Tribune weekly updates on the project, but after a few weeks stopped returning calls or even picking up the phone when the paper tried to contact him.

“It seems to me, Mr. Mayor,” said Dan Nye, the longest serving member of the city council, “that maybe the babysitter needs babysitting, the ones that are babysitting the contract.

“Because things are not getting done,” added Nye.

“Maybe we need somebody to babysit them. Because they aren’t doing what they said they were going to do,” continued Nye.

“We need to sit down with them and we need to have a plan to get this done, otherwise we are going to lose a lot of businesses,” said Nye.

“It’s a bigger problem than might just be apparent from the business owners that are here already,” asserted Jennifer Boka, a local small business owner who said she was planning on opening a downtown office but had put those plans on hold due to the problems with the waterline project.

“I have brought my small businesses here to Dillon and was very enthusiastic about moving out of my home office into a downtown location here. I have been looking at rental opportunities here, really, really excited about the feeling of downtown Dillon and having a home base that was not in my home office, to interact with this community and interact with people that come in your front door,” said Boka,

“It’s actually very disheartening to me,” said Boka of the ongoing problems with the waterline project snafu currently occupying downtown Dillon.

“And we have pulled back from the desire to be downtown with another business. And I simply say that to show you, I don’t believe this is your fault as a council, I believe this is the fault of the construction company and the engineers.”

“We cannot let this continue. We just can’t,” said Carroll.

“It is time to take action.”