Local and state leaders say the new US 31 Bypass is necessary for progress. The road around Kokomo opened last November and the bypass between South Bend and Plymouth is on track to open by the end of the year. Those who pushed for a better route between South Bend and Indianapolis for decades say it will help Indiana business growth. But there’s also concern it may be bad for smaller, local businesses.
“We thought it was going to hurt a little bit,” said Kokomo Marathon gas station and convenience store owner Nic Singh. “But then it did more than a little bit.”
Drivers now have a choice: take the old route through town or bypass Kokomo altogether.
“It’s hurting everybody. Everybody in this town I know,” Singh added.
Singh’s store is technically the ‘main drag’ through town for people heading to or from Indianapolis. He says his profits are down 20 to 25 percent since the bypass opened 6 months ago.
A fast food restaurant that asked not to be identified told WSBT its bottom line is down 15 percent since November.
Other businesses, like Giesecke RV, say they’re noticing a difference but it’s too soon to know if a 1 to 2 percent drop in sales is because of the new road.
“[There’s] less semi traffic. And that’s a Godsend for Kokomo,” owner Dan Giesecke told WSBT. “It’s been a very long winter so we don’t know the true numbers as of yet.”
Indiana’s Department of Transportation says between 17,000 and 19,000 vehicles passed through Kokomo every day before the bypass opened. But a study done several years ago said 80 percent of those drivers were local.
An INDOT spokesman said it is too soon to know how many drivers are using the new bypass around Kokomo.
About 75 miles north of there, closer to home, the state says some 20,000 drivers take US 31 through Lakeville each day.
“I definitely think it’s going to hurt and impact our business,” said Beth Walesiewicz, a cashier at the Casey’s Mini-Mart in Lakeville.
She’s worried the gas station and convenience store won’t survive the new 31 bypass around Lakeville and LaPaz.
“After I’ve traveled down through Kokomo and just the difference of actually going through Kokomo or down 31 it's… yeah,” Walesiewicz said. “I almost felt guilty getting on the new road.”
Guilty because she did the same thing she worries many drivers will do to go around Lakeville in a few short months.
“I would stop at a certain Speedway in Kokomo and I didn't stop there because I didn't drive past it,” she said.
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Jeff Rea is also a member of the US 31 Coalition – a group that pushed to make the new road a reality.
“On one hand you’re very sympathetic in terms of these people have made major investments there and that’s affected by this now,” Rea said. “On the other hand, US 31’s been planned for more than 50 years. It’s been on the drawing board, they’ve talked about building it. It wasn’t a surprise, it didn’t come out of nowhere.”
The US 31 coalition is made up of economic development leaders from all over the state. They started meeting about 15 years ago, Rea said, with the goal to prime the area between South Bend and Indianapolis for business growth – specifically warehouse distribution and logistics.
“I would tell you that over the years, those communities on I-65 and I-69 have seen three times the number of business prospects looking at the area than we have because we don't have that north-south connection,” he added.
But the price of progress is frustrating some of the small, local businesses.
“The state don’t care,” said Singh. “They don’t care. They’re still getting their money or their taxes. They don’t care about us.”
“I don’t know that’s true,” Rea countered. “In all the meetings I’ve been in over the last 15 years, there’s been a lot of effort to try to accommodate as many people as we can.”
In Kokomo, for example, the city annexed some property all the way to the new bypass. It’s an attempt to stop urban sprawl and protect some of the locals who are already hurting.
“Not to say we never would or for a certain reason develop out there, but if it’s just a fast food franchise or fast food chain that wants to go on to the virgin property out there and transfer their asset from one part of Kokomo to the other, we're obviously not interested in that happening,” said Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight.
He also said the three types of businesses that appear to be most affected by the new bypass there are fast food restaurants, gas stations and hotels. Goodnight said they’ll have a much better gauge of the bypass’ impact once it’s been open a year.
Goodnight said he’s never been a fan of the new bypass. He offered alternatives, such as adding lanes through his town or taking out some stoplights. But now he and business owners like Singh know it’s all they can do to deal with what’s been done.
“What can we do about it?” Singh asked.
According to INDOT spokesman Matt Deitchley, the bypass between South Bend and Plymouth is expected to open by the end of 2014, which should take more time off the trip to Indianapolis.
But there is still a lot of work to do around the Westfield area, Rea said, and 30 percent of the project still doesn’t have money allocated, meaning it will be a few years before the project is all the way done.