MORGANTOWN — From the parking lot of Las Chalupas, barriers blocking the bridge over Indian Creek are visible.
At the junction of state roads 135 and 252, a sign lets travelers know the bridge is out.
But no sign sends them a little further down the road to the southbound detour toward Brown County, where they could see that the restaurant — like the rest of Morgantown and northern Brown County — is still open.
Las Chalupas is one of several Morgantown businesses that reported drops in May revenue of 50 percent or more compared to last year.
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Locals are still supporting the restaurant, said Manager Alberto Quezada. But the loss of travelers on their way to Brown County is hurting. It’s like having an extended winter season, he said.
The iron truss bridge was first closed in October after a tall truck struck the steel support structure. Although the Indiana Department of Transportation reopened it after a few days, an INDOT inspector on April 22 immediately closed it again because of safety concerns.
The $342,000 repair contract has been awarded to OLCO Inc. of Batesville. But even with financial incentives for completing the 45-day project early, the bridge is not projected to reopen until mid-July.
At Critser’s Flowers and Gifts in downtown Morgantown, a stack of directions to Critser’s Greenhouse — on the Brown County side of the bridge — sits on the counter. The detour adds about 8 miles to a trip to the greenhouse, which would otherwise be about a mile.
For owner Shane White, the bridge closure could not have come at a worse time — at the peak of the greenhouse’s three-month season. By the end of June, that season will be over.
All of the stock is perishable, and anything he doesn’t sell is a loss.
“I’m not just losing business, I’m going to lose the capital that I invested,” he said.
White’s sister, Autumn Cure, works at the Critser’s in downtown Morgantown but lives just on the other side of the bridge. During the school year, she had to drive her daughter 20 minutes to get to the bus each morning, then return home to get ready for work since it was still another two hours before the store opened.
For the flower shop, the drop in business hasn’t been as dramatic as for the greenhouse, White said.
Still, the display case sits empty. Cure said the flowers were wilting before anyone could buy them, so she stopped stocking the display.
It’s not just tourists who aren’t passing through Morgantown anymore, said Tina French, part-owner of Frenchy’s Pub.
The intersection of state roads 135 and 252 is usually abuzz with commuters on weekday mornings. Lately, French has passed through the intersection without another car in sight.
Himmat Singh manages Town Sub and the Town Mart gas station, which his family owns at that intersection. Even fuel sales have been cut in half, and the family is paying workers out of their own pockets to keep the businesses open, he said.
On May 23, Town Sub had no customers throughout the normal lunch hour, he said.
It is possible the family will have to close the sandwich shop until the bridge reopens, but Singh said he doesn’t want to do that to his employees if he can avoid it.
At the Morgantown Woodchuck IGA, owner Randy Wood said the store is surviving, but he agreed with Quezada; it’s like a second winter.
Like a farmer storing up wheat, local businesses depend on their summer profits to make it through the winter, he said.
Wood has not had to release any employees yet.
He and other business owners said they’re grateful for local customers who go out of their way on a detour to support the store.
Mike Smith, who owns Kathy’s Diner on East Washington Street, said the initial decline in business was about 15 to 20 percent.
However, with each day, it seems to drop off more, as people try to find faster and easier detours that take them further from Morgantown.
Before the bridge closed, Kathy’s Diner had been doing a little better than last year, he said. He keeps hope that they’ll make enough after the bridge reopens to cover their losses.
“We always keep the faith that the Lord will provide,” he said. “What happens, happens. It could be worse.”
South side hurting
On the Brown County side of the bridge, Critser’s isn’t the only business affected by the closure. Even as far south as Bean Blossom, staff at Brownie’s restaurant have noticed a loss of customers.Cook Deana Shirrel remembers how suddenly the closure hit. She had driven to Morgantown for gas on April 22, and when she turned around to come back, she found herself trapped on the north side of the bridge.
While the restaurant still sees the typical local crowds for breakfast, overall, there has been around a 50 percent to 60 percent drop-off in business without travelers passing by, she said.
In the first two Fridays of the Bean Blossom Farmers Market, business has dropped about a third over last year, said organizer Marylin Day. The biggest problem has been getting vendors to the market; many come from outside the county.
Day said she’s had to constantly send emails to keep vendors updated on route changes. In addition to the 135 bridge, work has been taking place on the Lick Creek bridge on State Road 45, too.
For Janet Stout at Backyard Greenhouse on 135 in Fruitdale, the effect has not been as directly felt in sales. Most of her customers are regulars.
“We’re just fortunate people have found us,” she said.
However, she has been concerned about the safety of the detours for her customers and her neighbors, one of whom broke a wheel axle after being forced off the road by oncoming traffic on a detour route.
“I’m just afraid somebody I know is going to get killed getting run off the roads,” she said.
Nathaniel Baker commented on a Facebook post about the closure that he dodged three head-on collisions in a single day and the detour is costing him extra gas to get to work.
Fifty-seven other commenters also noted extra wear and tear on their vehicles from taking the back roads and the difficulty of getting places on time.
With travelers being diverted onto more narrow county roads instead of State Road 135, there is no safe way for tourists with large campers and motor homes to get through Morgantown to Brown County, Wood said.During one trip over Three Story Hill and Lick Creek roads — the official local detour — Cure said she was run off the road by two motor homes that took up the entire road.
Brown County Sheriff Scott Southerland has assigned extra patrols to the detour routes, focusing on where the majority of complaints have come from.
The sheriff said most of the speeders they have stopped are actually residents of the road they are on. He hopes increased law enforcement presence will encourage them to slow down.
In addition to stopping speeders, deputies have helped a few lost travelers find their way, he said.
“It’s a bad situation, and we’ve just got to make the best of it that we can,” Southerland said.
Art Knight, who owns Knight’s Trash Removal, has customers on both sides of the bridge and along the detour routes. He has faith in his drivers who are familiar with the county roads, but the increased traffic adds risk to their routes.
“It’s dangerous, it really is,” he said. “Especially when you’ve got everybody shootin’ for the detour, and you’ve got stops along the way, it’s pretty bad.”
Outgoing Brown County Schools Transportation Director Jeff Deckard said school bus drivers on some of the detour routes reported increases in violations like vehicles passing buses with a stop arm out.
There were delays due to backups in traffic, but no accidents directly affecting the buses, he said.
School is out now, and the bridge should be repaired before school starts up again. But the work on the State Road 45 bridge will extend into next school year, still requiring detours in the area.
Deckard — who started a new job June 2 as the Morgantown town marshal — wanted to remind drivers to be aware of the buses even as they are rushing to make up time from delays and detours.
Locals already depend on each other for support, Cure said, and with the loss of summer traffic, that has been even more the case.Perhaps the greatest example happened at Critser’s Greenhouse over Memorial Day weekend.
On May 27, White put out a plea on Facebook, letting people know about his five greenhouses full of flowers which would soon go to waste. He offered a buy-one-get-one-free special, as well as a $5 gas credit for any sale over $20 to help offset the extra travel time to get there.
White has about 200 Facebook friends. In 24 hours, the post was shared more than 1,000 times.
On May 28, all 200 hanging baskets of flowers sold out by 1 p.m., he said.
Many of his regulars who had already bought all they needed for the season returned to buy more. Complete strangers who had never even heard of his greenhouse came, too, buying his plants and offering words of encouragement.
White had been worried he wouldn’t break even for the season, but after a weekend of nonstop business, he is almost at that point.
“It was absolutely amazing, and I don’t even know how to express how thankful I was for everybody that turned out to help support us,” he said.
“I’m happy to live in a community that everybody wants to help out.”
State Road 135 bridge over Indian Creek: The official detour, for which the county will be reimbursed for local road damage by the state, uses Three Story Hill Road to North Lick Creek Road, which becomes Bloomington Pike in Morgantown where it intersects with State Road 135 again.
State Road 45 bridge over Lick Creek: This bridge closed May 23 to be reconstructed. Because of delays, the bridge is not expected to be open sometime in the fall, said County Commissioner Diana Biddle. Until the State Road 135 bridge reopens, drivers in the Helmsburg area will still be able to use the Lick Creek Road/State Road 45 intersection to go north and south to the Morgantown area. But after the 135 bridge is open again, that intersection will close, Biddle said. The official detour for the State Road 45 bridge closure uses Lanam Ridge Road, which intersects with 45 at the west end in Trevlac and with Helmsburg Road at the east end just south of Helmsburg.
Slow down: Last week, the Brown County Commissioners approved the first reading of a law to lower the speed limit on current detour routes, to 30 mph. Superintendent Mike Magner will post advisory speed signs until the new limits go into effect after the second reading of the law Wednesday, June 15. The affected roads are Three Story Hill and Cottonwood roads, as well as Lick Creek Road north of Cottonwood.