By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Only a few times in Mary Stroud's 34 years as a waitress at the Hudson Lunch has her employer sent her home early.
Lately, that's been happening every day.
Hudson Lunch and other businesses along East Washington Street have been struggling since a two-block section of downtown's main thoroughfare was closed about a month ago.
"We're looking forward to better things," said George Kolovos, who owns Hudson Lunch with wife, Joanne. They say business has been off about 20 percent since East Washington closed.
Mayor Timothy Fulkerson said he asked business owners to be patient.
"Our hope is the businesses that are taking a hit right now will, in the long run, see an improved business area with more people shopping and doing business," he said.
The city is undergoing a $10 million downtown revitalization that includes new utilities, sidewalks, roads, traffic signals, lights and more parking. It's the first work of this type downtown in more than 20 years.
Jack Butz, owner of Butz Flowers, remembers the last downtown revitalization and how things improved when new sidewalks, streets and seating areas were put in.
Business people ate lunch outside, frequented the shops and came in to shop, he said.
"But it got to the point where it's not too good now," said Butz, who moved his family business to East Washington in 1972.
Butz said he is fortunate that most of his business is done by telephone and he doesn't rely much on people walking in.
Others aren't faring as well.
Joe Malloy of Malloy's Camera Shop next door said his business dropped tremendously since the street closed.
"People are afraid to walk down the street because of the big equipment," he said.
But Malloy said he's going to tough it out until construction work is over. He believes the new street, which will include on-street parking, will improve his business.
"Even when the street was opened people complained that they didn't want to walk to the store," Malloy said. There were only city parking lots downtown previously.
Jim Miles, owner of The Basement, a tattoo parlor and body-piercing shop, also is looking forward to more parking downtown when the project ends.
"This is a good location downtown, but the parking was terrible. Everybody was getting tickets. [Revitalization] is going to benefit us," he said.
Miles said his business dropped off greatly when the street first closed because people thought the businesses shut down along with the street.
He said he had to change his strategy and hand out more business cards to let people know his shop was open.
John Sansone, owner of Little Johnny's Pizza, had the same problems. He's since changed his hours and widened his delivery area.
He also credits city officials for their help.
Sansone said he told city administrator John DiMuccio that business had been off and the next day a large lunch order came in from city workers.
Sansone said he's been fortunate that the construction workers frequent his business and have made up for some of the losses.
The normally busy thoroughfare was empty when sisters Betty DeSatnik, 70, Ruth Augostine, 72, and Carol Gramsky, 59, went to shop last week.
DeSatnik and Gramsky, who live in New Castle, and Augostine of Beaver Falls, said they usually frequent shops and eat lunch downtown a few times a week, but they haven't been able to get there since construction started.
"We've got six new knees here and can't walk too far," Gramsky said.
Fulkerson did authorize free parking at the city lot on Mercer and East Washington streets in an effort to encourage people to go downtown.
Joe Caravella of Neshannock Township, who frequents Hudson Lunch about once a week, said the construction hasn't kept him away.
"It's a bit of an inconvenience, but it's not bad if you know how to get around New Castle," he said.
City officials hope foot traffic to the businesses picks up after the sidewalks go in sometime this week. The street will remain closed to cars for about another month as workers take out the road and pour a new concrete street, Fulkerson said. It should open to motor vehicles sometime before July, he said.
The next phase of work will start in late June and close East Washington from Mill to East streets, to vehicular traffic.
That section of road fronts the Neisner-Centennial Building, the focal point of the planned Hollywood-theme mall proposed by Tom George and Bob Bruce.
City officials were able to secure a $5 million state grant for downtown revitalization because of the mall plans.
Fulkerson said he's gotten complaints about the lack of work on the mall, but the mayor stresses that downtown revitalization is meant to help all businesses.
"It's not solely the objective of working with Mr. George and Mr. Bruce. As you can see they are far behind what the city is doing. We will continue this with or without them," he said.