Chickaloon merchants say highway relocation bad for business

Posted: Tuesday, May 21, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- With downtown consisting of a gas station, general store, lodge and a post office, Chickaloon is the quintessential blink-and-you-miss-it community.

But state transportation department plans to realign the Glenn Highway will forever hide downtown from tourists, a move that would drive the businesses under, residents said.

Plans call for moving the highway a few hundred feet to the north of the existing business center and into a ridge that would be used to gain elevation for a new bridge across the Chickaloon River.

Judy Nix, owner of King Mountain Lodge, said a few hundred feet may as well be a few hundred miles, because passers-by will never see hers and others' businesses if the highway is built behind the nearby ridge.

''We'll be deader than a doornail,'' said Nix, whose lodge consists of a bar, restaurant and some motel rooms. ''If they take away our summer traffic, we'll have no way to pay our bills. My life is invested here.''

In this community of about 500, 76 miles north of Anchorage, moving the highway is the talk of the town.

''It doesn't sound like a big deal,'' said Sharyl Ferrall, a bartender at the King Mountain Lodge. ''But if the highway is moved past these businesses, they're dead.''

That would mean locals would have to drive to Sutton, 17 miles to the south, to get gas, groceries or a beer.

The town has offered its own plan to widen the highway and slow traffic, from 55 to 45 mph.

Willie Van Nostrand, Department of Transportation project manager in Anchorage, said plans to realign the highway north of the existing road is the most ''buildable option,'' and would allow better access to the proposed bridge across the Chickaloon River.

Van Nostrand said the current stretch of road going through downtown is hard to maintain and has suffered flood damage in the past.

He said the community has made it clear it doesn't like the state's plan.

''They're not only telling us no, but hell no,'' Van Nostrand said.

Estimates for the realignment a few hundred feet to the north of the existing Glenn Highway and a new bridge are pegged at more than $70 million, Van Nostrand said.

The state transportation department is a long way off before making a final decision on where and when the road would be realigned, Van Nostrand said.

The Glenn Highway, which has undergone major reconstruction recently, has been nominated as an All-American Road. If selected by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, the Glenn Highway would be in the company of 15 other roads across the United States, including the Seward Highway.

Chickaloon residents believe the designation would bring more tourists to town.

Jim Wahre and his wife Ina, recently bought the downtown gas station and general store after it had been closed for nearly two years.

Wahre said he doesn't want the highway to be moved, but he said he has a marketing plan in place in case it does.

State law prohibits permanent billboards, so Wahre plans on making a huge sign advertising cheap gas and groceries at his store. The sign would be affixed to his swamp buggy and placed in his yard about a mile from his business. He said he'd move the swamp buggy occasionally to be in compliance with state law.

''As long as it's got wheels it's legal,'' said Wahre.

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