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Route 88 business returns slowly

| Friday, March 14, 2003

Being a man who butchers meat, not words, George Barker cuts to the point when expressing the risk involved with reopening his Castle Shannon market.

"If you're going to be $200,000 in debt," he said, "you might as well be $400,000 in debt."

Barker not only reopened Barker's Meats & Poultry Thursday but he expanded -- exactly three months after closing due to a severe drop in business that resulted from construction delays on Route 88.

Business gradually is returning to the Route 88 corridor that was limited to one southbound lane from Route 51 to McNeilly Road for nine months while the state Department of Transportation constructed a bridge a quarter mile south of Barker's store.

The road was reopened in early January, a month after the contracted completion date. PennDOT was slowed by a 33-inch sanitary sewer line they didn't realize was there, the weather and relocation of several Duquesne Light utility poles that prohibited construction.

The longer the road was closed, the longer potential customers avoided businesses on the once bustling corridor. That was especially true during the holidays, when Barker said his Thanksgiving business was half what it was a year earlier.

So he closed Dec. 13.

But now with the road reopened, traffic has trickled back -- enough to spur Barker to reopen and add 1,000-square-feet to the store he first worked in as a 16-year-old, despite being $200,000 in debt from the lost business.

"I was bombarded and overwhelmed from people calling me because we weren't open," said Barker, 47, of South Park. Behind him, an employee answered a call from someone congratulating them for opening. "I talked to some merchants along 88 and they said as soon as (the road) opened they said their business came back."

That's true further north on Route 88, where Elida Yovanof said her February business at The Royal Place restaurant in Overbook was better than in previous years.

"My problem is finding help," she said. "That's a positive thing."

Once construction began, the restaurant lost two wedding parties, cut the hours of its staff, and watched regular customers jump to competitors to avoid traffic hassles. Now they need workers to help cater to the rising number of customers.

Still, Yovanof said traffic isn't close to its pre-construction levels, where traffic backed to a standstill outside the restaurant.

"I don't expect it to come back for six months," she said.

Steve and Linda Mueser never noticed an effect on their business, Signature Desserts, when Route 88 traffic was limited.

"What we really noticed was an increase after the roadway opened," said Linda Mueser. The store is mainly a wholesale business, providing baked goods to restaurants while maintaining a smaller retail service out of the Route 88 store, they said.

On Monday they hope to open a new site in the same Library Road complex that will double their size. Their expansion has more to do with a growing business than a construction-related boon.

Barker's Meats, which plans a grand reopening Saturday, will grow based on hope and expectations that business will be what it once was.

As Barker leans against a counter showcasing fresh steaks and ground beef, a half dozen customers are scattered throughout the market.

A man steps inside the door, past the newly lighted neon "Open" sign. He smiles and looks towards Barker.

"Looks good George," the man says. "Now if we can just keep that road open."

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