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HILLSVILLE — Has the recently U.S. 58 bypass, now the mainline of the coalfields-to-the-coast highway in Hillsville, changed the retail landscape for businesses in town?
There are two answers to that question, according to locals who participated in a brief and informal phone survey conducted by The Gazette.
"Not really" and "not yet," respondents said.
The $83 million four-laning project carved through the hills in town, flattening a five-mile path, but after a month its effect on the retail establishments and restaurants along the newly-dubbed Business 58 hasn’t been as dire as once feared.
While local officials hold out hope for development near the limited-access road, opponents argued that routing traffic away from local businesses would end up killing existing commerce in Hillsville.
But, so far, no one that spoke to The Gazette has experienced any noticeable declines in their sales.
The survey included TNT Grocery, Cockerham’s Food Mart, Hardee’s, Race In, Hillsville Family Mart, Burger King and Cavalier Cafe — those businesses that may reasonably be expected to feel impacts from the opening of the bypass.
In fact, the two convenience stores on South Main Street — those closest to the road’s new alignment — said they believe their business has changed for the better in the month that the highway has been open.
Staff at TNT Grocery say they are seeing new faces and expect that those people are motorists stopping in from the new 58.
Workers at Cockerham’s also believe that they have been busier.
These results square with what Mayor Bill Tate has been hearing around town. “Well, I’ve talked to people and they say their business is picking up,” he reported.
The rest of the respondents report no significant changes.
A summary of comments made by the survey participants are as follows:
• At the same time as they see no major impacts, there’s still an undercurrent of doubt about what the future may hold.
“I think it will hurt the town,” one said. “I hope I’m wrong.”
• Both locals and travelers still have to visit the existing businesses in town if they need gas or something to eat.
That may change if competitors arise along the new stretch of highway.
• As the bypass opened at the end of summer, the high volume travel season was basically just ending.
Whether travelers will keep going on the bypass and not patronize local businesses remains to be seen in the more "touristy" season, several said.
The weekend of the Martinsville NASCAR race will give a first indication of what will happen at times when lots of motorists have to pass through the area to get to their destination.
• Most business at this time of year comes from locals. Those numbers remain unchanged.
Even vocal bypass opponent Greg Crowder, owner of Race In, has been surprised about the results of the road opening.
He’s noticed fewer credit card receipts from customers from 100 miles and 50 miles away, he said. “That was small, but they bought a lot.”
However, Crowder says he sees more people from the eastern part of Carroll County, taking the bypass to the west side of town and spending at his store.
That has made up the gap.
Still, traffic on the bypass remains ridiculously low, he added. It might equal the daily use of an off-the-beaten path secondary county road, like Elk Horn.
It may amount to 200 vehicles a day, Crowder estimated. Unlike local officials, he doubts that a new business would spend the money to locate on the bypass to cater to that low amount of vehicles.
In his opinion, "the bypass is still a huge mistake on the state’s part."
(Jason Bond, spokesman for VDOT, said there have been a couple of requests for traffic counts on the new portion of the road. Traffic engineers do counts on a cycle, and it has not come around to the new 58 yet.)
Inside his store, Crowder has seen a change in customer buying behavior, but he thinks it has nothing to do with the bypass.
His theory is that gas prices dropping about 50 cents from their highs this year has freed up some of the customers’ discretionary spending money to buy other things.
While it’s still too soon for the road to have attracted new development, Tate believes the bypass has improved one safety issue in town, at least.
“I’ve seen fewer trucks coming through the red light — that’s a good thing,” he said.