Hilltop Shopping Center is open and ready for customers

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By Katy Korkos

The summer of 2008 was not an easy one for business people at the Hilltop Shopping Center, with orange barrels, detours, bulldozers, cement barriers, truck-sized holes in the ground, flaggers and signs directing people every which way, making it hard for customers to visit their favorite restaurants during the Diamond Drive Phase II construction.

The construction season has ended for this year, and there is a new left turn lane with signal to make it easier to turn on to Arkansas. The sight line for oncoming cars is also improved, but the customers haven’t come back in the numbers expected.

Bob Carlson, whose barbecue restaurant Bob’s Bodacious BBQ has been located in the Hilltop Center for three years, believes that people just got out of the habit of coming to the center because they didn’t know how long it might take them to navigate the construction zone.

“The road is open, and we’re still here,” Carlson said. “Our business is down about 20 percent.”

Carlson said that adding that it causes a problem when he has to send employees home early or cut shifts. Those good employees often look elsewhere for steadier work, and are not available to be hired back when business picks back up.

He said that as a business owner, he’s well aware that sales can always drop due to circumstances beyond one’s control, but he feels that the county could have been far more accommodating to the businesses.

Carlson is also concerned that Phase III of Diamond Drive construction, scheduled for the summer of 2009, will be equally bad for business.

“Phase 2 occurred during our peak money-making months, and Phase 3 will be the same,” Carlson said.

The restaurant offers both lunch and dinner during the work week, and also does catering. Carlson started in the barbecue business with a mobile smoker, which he took to contests and events around the state, winning many prizes along the way. His family set down roots here five years ago, with their first bricks-and-mortar location across from the high school.

“We chose this town in preference to Santa Fe or Taos,” Carlson said.

He said that only high quality, grade A ingredients go into his food.

“We don’t try to cut corners, and not a day goes by that we don’t get complimented on our food,” Carlson said. “The proof is in the puddin’. We’ve built a good business here and we want it to continue.”

Carlson’s restaurant wasn’t the only business hit during the construction and in the weeks after.

“Change is tough,” Nicole Dunn of Dunn Quilting said Thursday. “It definitely was an inconvenience for our customers.”

The quilting business, which shares its space with Pat Randall’s Chairworks upholstery business, is busy completing people’s quilt projects before the holidays. “It didn’t affect us as much as it did the restaurants, but we certainly worried, and it definitely was an inconvenience. I’m really glad it’s done.”

Randall echoed Dunn’s sentiments, as she also had her hands full last week with orders from people who need pieces done before the holiday guests arrive.

“People come in by appointment, so our business didn’t suffer as much,” Randall said, also expressing concern that if any of the businesses currently in the Hilltop Center were to move out, her business would be negatively impacted by empty storefronts.

Ron Rivera’s beauty salon, Images by Ron, also didn’t experience a huge loss of business during the construction, but he did notice a slight drop.

“It’s a little better now,” Rivera said. “But I have my regulars, and they kept coming.”

Abby Burk’s whole family is involved in business, or “engulfed in business” as she said Monday. Husband Brad runs Hot Rocks, the kids help her out in the Film Festival, her Mom owns the shopping center and her in-laws own and operate Papa Murphy’s in the Hilltop Shopping Center.

She encouraged families to visit the shopping center over the holiday, pick up pizza or barbecue or sushi and a movie, and settle in for some quality time together.

“Our shopping center offers a low-cost option for families to spend time together,” Abby Burk said. She added that she is “grateful to the people who did make the trek to get here.”

She is relieved that the construction is over, especially because her kids go to Mountain School and that neighborhood had to absorb all of the extra traffic while the detours were in place.

She said that she could really see the benefit for the whole community with the improvements to the intersection, making it much safer for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

“Ultimately I think we’re much better off as a community,” Burk said.