State Road 37 overhaul plan has business owners on alert

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Business owners along State Road 37 in Hamilton County expressed concern Monday night about losing customers during a highway project being proposed to ease congestion.

“I’m scared to death,” said Karen Melzer, general manager of family owned Honda of Fishers, a 35-year-old dealership that moved from Indianapolis’ west side earlier this year. “We’re still trying to build our business here.”

Traffic along the commercial corridor is heavy—about 40,000 vehicles travel the four-lane highway daily, county officials have said—but Melzer said she hasn’t heard any complaints about the dealership being difficult to reach.

Construction is sure to be painful, and she isn’t sure the proposal to replace signalized intersections with roundabout interchanges will help her business, located just north of a new stoplight at 135th Street.

Her biggest fear: Motorists cruising along a free-flowing State Road 37 will fly right past, robbing the Honda dealership of its No. 1 source of  sales leads—drive-by visits.

“Our sales department still hasn’t recovered” from the move, she said. “This is going to hurt.”

County Commissioner Christine Altman didn’t dispute Melzer and others’ assertion that the project would disrupt their businesses in the short term. But the alternative, she said, is equally untenable.

With Hamilton County’s population projected to double 2050, congestion along the major north-south is only going to get worse, she said. And at some point, the gridlock will be just as painful for businesses and their customers.

“If we don’t do anything, people are going to have trouble getting to you,” said Altman, president of the three-member elected Board of Commissioners.

As IBJ reported in May, county officials are vetting a plan to replace nine signalized intersections with roundabout interchanges, aiming to reduce the drive time on—and across—a six-mile stretch from Interstate 69 to State Road 32 that passes through Fishers and Noblesville.

If local leaders sign off on the $243 million proposal, their representatives will begin discussions with the Indiana Department of Transportation about relinquishing ownership (and control) of the state road.

But officials want buy-in from businesses, too, given the existing commercial development and the potential for more. So they scheduled two public meeting this week to get feedback on the proposal—and perhaps some ideas for easing the pain. The second is set for 7 p.m. today at the Delaware Township Community Building, 9094 E. 131st St., Fishers.

The proposed transformation has been compared to Carmel’s much-touted reconstruction of Keystone Parkway, which Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear called “a beautiful drive” from 146th Street to 96th Street (where a lone remaining stoplight still causes traffic to stall). But most of Keystone is lined by residential areas, not retail.

“We have a lot more to protect and perhaps a lot more to lose,” Ditslear told the crowd Monday. “It’s important for us … to make sure we control this project.”

Business owners threw out a few suggestions—tax breaks during the worst of construction, for example, and temporary signage directing customers through the work zone—but most seemed more interested in gathering information, asking questions and studying conceptual renderings of the proposed solution.

“Something needs to be done,” said Monica Peck, who owns Noblesville’s Hare Chevrolet dealership. “It’s getting there that’s the process.”

Altman said the county plans to commission an economic impact study that will evaluate the project’s long-term costs and benefits before taking the proposal to the state, likely sometime next spring.

No one’s breaking out the orange barrels yet. Design likely will take about three years, and construction will last at least as long.

By getting businesses involved in the process early, Altman said officials hope to work around potential problems before they occur.

“We’ve got to figure out how to make it work the best for you,” she said.

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