Bridge closure impact on small businesses: ‘We’re in trouble’

Updated at 3:05 p.m.

RICK SIMONE, executive director, Federal Hill Commerce Association, said Wednesday many businesses were impacted by the closure of the Washington Bridge. PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

PROVIDENCE – “Depression” and “exasperation” are two words Rick Simone used to describe how affected small businesses are reacting to the closure of the westbound lanes of Interstate 195 across the Washington Bridge.

Simone, the Rhode Island Small Business Coalition’s managing director and president of the Federal Hill Commerce Association, told Providence Business News on Wednesday that he expected this holiday season to be a “very good end” to what he says has been a challenging year for small businesses due to inflation, supply-chain problems and lower-than-expected net profits. Retail businesses, hairdressers, delivery services and restaurants all rely on the holidays to provide that economic jolt to their operations going into the new year.

Now? “We’re in trouble,” Simone said. “It’s really devastating.”

R.I. Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti Jr. said Tuesday that engineers working on the $78 million Washington Bridge reconstruction project discovered faulty components, leading to the closure of the bridge to westbound traffic and major traffic snarls in the surrounding areas.

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The Washington Bridge carries Interstate 195 over the Seekonk River from Providence to East Providence and serves as a key gateway to Providence. The bridge carries close to 100,000 vehicles every day.

Simone said Wednesday that a Providence-based caterer informed him that the business lost more than 10 events due to the bridge closure and the fears of being stuck in traffic for hours. Deliveries are also not happening, Simone said, because the trucks coming from the state’s East Bay or from southeastern Massachusetts cannot get through.

One East Providence-based restaurant told Simone that the situation resembled what occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, filling only two tables all night from people who walked there. Another restaurant, Simone said, had to close because staff could not get there because of the traffic.

MAYOR BRETT P. Smiley, left, speaks with reporters in Wayland Square. Nest to him is Gov. Daniel J. McKee; U.S. Small Business Administration District Director, Mark Hayward; and R.I. Commerce Secretary Elizabeth Tanner./PBN PHOTO/ CHRIS ALLEN

Simone also noted Providence businesses, particularly on Federal Hill, are being impacted as well. One Federal Hill restaurant on Wednesday morning had three holiday parties cancel, he said.

He also said businesses are not putting blame on Gov. Daniel J. McKee because he “didn’t damage the bridge himself,” but the challenge for businesses is that someone “has to assume responsibility” for the situation and work to find a way to assist businesses. That, he said, does fall at the McKee administration’s feet.

Simone also said that problems will linger even if the bridge’s I-195 eastbound side does get temporarily converted to two-way travel. He said traffic will still be an issue and it will be beyond the holidays before the modifications will be made, therefore holiday business potential will likely be lost.

Simone said businesses hope to be financially compensated for the unexpected losses, but he is unsure of how that will happen. He did say he hopes a survey that R.I. Commerce Secretary Elizabeth M. Tanner distributed to East Providence businesses requesting assistance will be more widely available to affected businesses in the surrounding area.

R.I. Commerce said it is in contact with state, local and federal officials, sharing updated outreach efforts and information from businesses and giving updates to the chambers of commerce, trade associations and community and business leaders. The agency said a team has been formed to address questions and concerns from businesses, conduct outreach and work with them on available assistance. A helpline 521-HELP is open, and a web page has been created at commerceri.com/emergency-assistance.

David M. Chenevert, executive director of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, said there could be delays for manufacturers getting materials delivered because some trucks that usually need to get over the bridge now must find alternate routes.

Chevenert said East Providence and East Bay manufacturers are among those that are most affected by the traffic jams and that R.I. Commerce Corp. is planning to provide financial assistance to those companies. Chevenert said he did not have an estimate for how much funding would be available but is working on notifying businesses that the assistance is available.

”Businesses and private citizens are suffering the same consequences, it’s time-consuming,” Chevenert said. “It’s just going to be frustrating, but everyone is doing their best.”

Providence Mayor Brett P. Smiley said restaurants in the city have seen nine times more cancellations than usual since the bridge was closed. During a press conference Wednesday at R.I. Department of Transportation headquarters, he encouraged residents to keep their plans.

“Providence is open for business, Smiley said. “This is the time to shop all businesses, small and large. These are Rhode Islanders that own these businesses. Help them now in this moment.”

McKee said during the press conference that Thursday he will sign a letter asking the U.S. Small Business Administration for assistance for small businesses affected by the bridge closure.

Justin Hart, president of Fulford Manufacturing based in East Providence, said the traffic delays are making it almost impossible for him to access vendors located across the bridge that he uses daily. While Hart said Fulford can go a few days without those vendors, it will be costly in the long run to get supplies and materials delivered through different routes.

Also, Hart said the traffic delays have meant that Fulford’s employees have been working outside their usual hours.

“Our only plan is to suffer through and to adjust hours,” said Hart, noting one employee’s normally 10 minute long commute took three hours on Tuesday.

Sara Abeles, vice president of Reliable Gold Ltd., located at Wayland Avenue and Angell Street, feared the significant public attention being given to the issue could make matters even worse.

The last two weeks of December can be “make or break” for her business, she said.

“We are all dealing with this in real time,” she said. “So, I hope people realize that businesses are still open. It’s important to get the word out that without small businesses, we would all be working with Amazon.”

Across the street, Angie DiMeo, co-owner of Eastside Cheese & Provisions, said she has already purchased four times the number of products to stock up for the holiday rush. Foot traffic was sparse on Wednesday and DiMeo worried she may have to throw out unsold goods after the New Year.

“It certainly doesn’t feel like a ‘holiday’ Wednesday,” she said. “But we can’t control it.”

Providence police officers could be seen directing vehicle traffic throughout the morning. Wayland Square in Providence has been hit particularly hard this week, said DiMeo, who agreed that it was vital that shoppers realize the square remained accessible.

“I’m hearing people saying, ‘Don’t go down there,’ ” she said. “It’s very scary.”

(UPDATE: Comment from Hart of Fulford Manufacturing added 19th through 21st paragraphs)

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