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Highway 12 construction takes chunk out of some businesses

WILLMAR -- A good portion of the customers who come to Central Lakes Cooperative, an auto repair shop on U.S. Highway 12 in Willmar, are people just passing through town with car troubles, according to manager Troy Robinson.

Normally, he said, that's a good thing. But now, with the concrete rehabilitation project in full swing directly in front of his shop, it's proving to be bad for business.

Robinson estimates that the project -- which began Wednesday and is scheduled to last into the middle of the month -- has cost him 25 percent of his business.

"We can feel the difference. It's definitely slowed down," he said. "The sooner it gets done, the better."

Though it doesn't ease his pain now, Robinson knew the project was coming. Diane Beck, Minnesota Department of Transportation District 8 public affairs coordinator, said business owners were informed of the project far in advance; a public meeting was held May 27 and a letter sent out to all affected businesses and landowners on March 25.

The letter informed them where the project would take place, what it entailed and included a map of the project, she said.

Still, Sondra Villarreal, manager of Gerry's Liquor Store on Highway 12, was a bit surprised to find construction workers in hardhats instead of the regular heavy morning traffic passing by the store Wednesday morning. She said that many customers were out of the loop as well.

"There were a lot of people who didn't know," she said.

Villarreal said that while a lot of the store's customers are locals, even they often don't want to deal with finding an alternate route to the store. It's especially a problem because of its small size, as regular customers may just decide to head to the bigger liquor stores on the outside of town for convenience, she said.

"Nobody wants to drive around to find out how to get here," she said.

While the relatively short duration of the project is a plus, it will still put an unfortunate crimp on business for one of the busiest seasons for liquor sales: early summer.

"It's gonna be hard," Villarreal said.

Not all businesses along Highway 12 are feeling the pinch equally, however. General Mailing of Willmar, a package delivery service on the stretch of highway under construction, has been doing a brisk business despite the detour, according to store employee Taryn VanHeuveln. The store's customers are local and know where to find it, and people don't generally drop in off the highway to get packages delivered, she said.

"It's slow on 12, but it's busy here," she said.