Mike Filbin just couldn’t bring himself to go through inventory and liquidate his shop – Filbin’s Ace Hardware – on his own, so he called in a team to do it for him on Friday.
After 10 years in business at 809 NE Minnehaha St. in Hazel Dell, working with the community, building workshops and becoming a fixture in the area, Filbin said the store he founded with his wife was mostly done-in by a traffic median constructed in the spring of 2018, which was then taken out and replaced again by Clark County Public Works this spring. The median stopped customers from turning left into his parking lot, and as a result, his customer base dropped dramatically to the point of no return, he said.
“We have a great business, we’ve been here since 2009 and we’ve been deeply involved in the community,” Filbin said. “But at the end of the day you just can’t overcome something like that. I called in the liquidators for Friday because this is my stuff and my people and my life’s work. I just can’t bring myself to shut it down myself.”
The business was also suffering from a new wave of competition that started in 2017, but it was working to remain competitive and overcome the problem. The first median, which ended the ability for customers to take a left turn into his shop, went in during what would have been the busiest months of his season – May, June and July – before he and other businesses in the area were able to convince the county to remove it because it wasn’t working properly.
“Things were great and not so great,” Filbin said. “We got things rolling and in early 2017 we had an influx of new competition in the market. We saw a path to getting back on top, but then in spring 2018 the county put that median in front of our store, and it was far more devastating to us than the competition had been.”
When it comes to buying hardware, Filbin noted, there’s so much competition now that customers can just keep driving to the next shop with an easier turnoff – which is what happened to his store.
Matt Griswold, Traffic Engineering and Operations Section supervisor at Clark County Public Works, said the state designated the area as a safety concern because there were 11 crashes along the 575 feet of roadway from 2012 to 2016. He wasn’t involved in the construction of the first median, but he said the county had tried to contact business owners before putting it in.
“Letters were sent out, but I wasn’t involved back then,” Griswold said. “I look at it as a safety concern. We had some crash data there.”
Filbin and other business owners on the street said they had prepared to meet with the county before the first median was put in, but something happened on the county’s end and it was put in before that meeting could take place, Filbin said.
“We as a group engaged early, but for scheduling reasons, the county just showed up and did it anyway before the meetings,” Filbin said. “I heard they had a gap in their schedule for an outside contractor, so they just had them show up and do it, and that’s why it happened, but I’m not positive.”
Griswold acknowledged that it was possible that the problem did happen that way, but he wasn’t able to track down the information to confirm it.
“He’s right we put a median in there last spring, and it was a solid median that didn’t allow traffic to cross at all,” Griswold said. “After it was in, we did meet with Mike, Les Schwab, people from the apartments, the veterinarian and several others in the area. Most all of them showed up and had input, and we ended up pulling out that solid median (in July 2018).”
But the county still needed to address the traffic safety issues in the area, so it discussed a compromise median with the group that would allow for left turnouts in the median into Filbin’s parking lot and other businesses.
“We came up with a compromise that allowed lefts into their businesses, but they couldn’t take another left to get back out,” Griswold said. “So, what’s out there now is what we came up with. And we think that will help with the safety and the crashes.”
Most of the crashes that the county is concerned about involved people taking left turns out of their driveways, Griswold added.
The new median was installed this May.
But the new median has caused another problem, said Randy Worch, assistant manager at Les Schwab Tire at 917 NE Minnehaha St., because now his customers are using the turn-out to take dangerous wrong-way turns into his parking lot.
“The biggest concern we have is people are coming in the wrong way to turn into our building, and you just can’t turn into our store that way,” Worch said. “We see no less than a dozen illegal U-turns a day there. We actually had to go out and help one car that was high-centered get off of the median.”
Still, the first median was even worse, he said, because it blocked off turns on the entire street.
“There was no room for semis to make the corner into our lot when the first one went in,” Worch said. “If they can’t get in, they’re not going to buy tires. But at least they fixed that with the new median.”
Les Schwab hasn’t seen much decrease in sales because of the work, but the competition isn’t as fierce as it is in hardware, Worch said. For him, the primary concern now is customer safety.
“I understand why the county is doing this, but I think the execution was lacking,” Worch said. “Doing this twice is a huge waste of resources. And now that it’s reinstalled it’s more functional, but it’s still not right. I think they need to get somebody out here and just watch what happens. When a crash happens, it’s going to happen directly in front of our store.”
The new median also hurt Filbin’s business once again when it went in during his key spring sales months. He said it’s a little better, but not anywhere near enough to save his business.
“The new median is exactly half as bad as the old one,” Filbin said. “It’s like you spend your days rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
Griswold acknowledged there were some problems with the medians and the county’s outreach to local businesses. That’s something he hopes to improve in the future, he said.
“I think we need to come up with a better understanding and practice,” Griswold said. “Next time we do something like this, we need to do more outreach, not just to businesses but residents as well.”
The county will monitor the number of traffic crashes at the site to see if the median has improved safety. There have been no crashes in the first two months since the installment of the new median, but that’s not a significant amount of data to work with, Griswold said.
As for Filbin, he said he’s going to take some time to process what happened to his business, but he added that he knows his company has good social capital in the community and that he will probably start looking for a new opportunity soon.
“This has just been so frustrating,” he said.