Businesses out in the cold on Vaisigano Bridge closure

Early advice of the three month closure around the Vaisigano Bridge Project was only afforded to some of the businesses affected by it, leaving four firms – Sheraton Samoa Aggie Grey’s Hotel and Bungalows, Aqua Samoa, the Coffee Bean, and Mari’s Café and Bakehouse – out in the cold.

A survey by the Samoa Observer of majority of the businesses on the water’s edge affected by the road closure, which for two months has traffic down to a one way lane and no traffic at all in March, found only businesses on the left of the new bridge were advised of the changes six weeks before they took effect: The Edge Marina View, Siva Afi, YNot Lounge Bar and Paddles Restaurant.

But on the right side, businesses report having no information or communication from the Land Transport Authority (L.T.A.) responsible for the project, and found out about it two days before the road to their livelihood was drastically closed.

Andrew Pedrana, Owner and operator of the Coffee Bean said the first time spoke to anyone from the L.T.A. was when he “cornered” a project manager into his café to explain what was happening outside the café.

“He apologised profusely and said look, this is unfortunate but this is what needs to happen.” 

That conversation was overheard by Karen Cardy, manager of AquaSamoa next door. She said if it wasn’t for being in the right place at the right time, she would not have known about the road closure either.

“We assumed there would be a closure one direction or the other, that’s logical, but some consultation would have been good, instead of reading it on a sign or on social media, or happening to be in the coffee shop next door. 

“Given that we now in the low season for this island, we’ve just come through the measles outbreak, it’s going to cause us some significant loss,” she said.

“There should be some allowances as to how we are going to access, and operate our businesses.”

On Monday, Ms. Cardy emailed the representative from the L.T.A. who was in the Coffee Bean, and by Friday had not had a response.

Mr. Pedrana said he would have expected communication from Government in the immediate lead up to the road closure, but instead heard nothing until Wednesday when the road was closed. And the effects on sales were immediate, with half the amount of customers arriving from only the day before, and his lunchtime business is basically gone, he said.

“In terms of timing, it’s pretty horrible. We just got through the epidemic and that economic down turn so to get this straight after is a real kick in the gut.

“Apia was a ghost town. I was reviewing the numbers for November and December… we were down 70 per cent, easily.”

December, which should have been a busy time for the café with big groups of Samoan families returning for reunions, instead resulted in four staff layoffs. This month, Mr. Pedrana has reduced his remaining eight staff’s hours from six to four days each a week.

Given the chance, he would have asked for off street parking, or suggested maintaining two-way traffic but letting one lane through at a time, as is happening at the entrance to Vaipuna.

Brian Nathan, who until Friday evening was the General Manager of the Sheraton Samoa Cluster, said he couldn’t specifically confirm if L.T.A delivered a letter to Sheraton Samoa, but said neither he nor his second in command, Frank Lu, received one.

Now, in addition to the dust, dirt and noise that has plagued the hotel since construction began, patrons have two months of detouring to get access, and potentially a month of walking themselves to the front door. 

“There was not been any direct dialogue with me personally, I am not aware they talked to anyone else at the Sheraton,” Mr. Nathan said. When told that 450 metres away businesses received letters from the L.T.A, he laughed, and said: “that would have been awesome.

“If I wasn’t leaving I would be trying to open dialogue with the people running the show and properly understand the implications of the closure,” he said. Mr. Nathan is being transferred to a new post in Fiji this weekend.

He said he wishes he had the opportunity to collaborate, not only with the L.T.A. but with the neighbouring businesses on the best way to handle the necessary changes to the road. 

He said the team just do their best to ensure guests are not disadvantaged, and they are anticipating the works to finish so everyone can enjoy the benefits they will bring. 

“It’s the price you pay for progress I suppose, but it would have been lovely to have been consulted.”

Like his neighbours. Gregory Meredith, co-owner of Mari’s Café and Bakehouse, and the G.M. Bakery was not contacted directly about the road closures.

“As far as I know we never received any letter,” Mr. Meredith said. He suspects the businesses on the other side of the bridge were specifically informed because of the more severe change to their route from town.

“Myself, Sheraton, Coffee Bean, maybe we weren’t informed because we still have access from the four corners all the way into town, that is probably the reason why.”

On the other side of the intersection where businesses were afforded a month and half notice and the opportunity to reach L.T.A senior staff, just one company interviewed was in good spirits.

Giovanni Rossi, who along with his parents and sister run Paddles Restaurant said he was grateful to have received the letter and map of the road closure from the L.T.A, because he never expected to be informed at all.

The officials made an extra effort to alert the Rossi’s of the closure: when they found Paddles Restaurant empty during the day (business opens at 5pm) the representatives went to the family’s other business, Milani Caffé, to deliver the letter.

“There was this beautiful A3 page with the drawing of the bridge, the Sheraton, all these streets to highlight the closure and the alternative option.

“I was surprised, I was very happy they actually acknowledged my family and my businesses. Sometimes notification comes a bit later so I was very happy they were proactive and thought about all the businesses in this area, I was very content.”

Manager of The Edge Marina View, Miriama Maiava said they received the letter from L.T.A. with the map, and so far have not noticed any change to their customer numbers so far.

Business at Paddles has not slowed, Mr. Rossi said. Most of their customers make phone bookings so are told about the detour, and actually the closure means a bigger car park for a few months, and no traffic in front of the waterfront diners making for a quieter experience.

“I am pretty much positive. Everybody needs to put a small effort, and at the end of the day we will have a nice bridge, there will be new lighting for the seawall, people will be able to walk safely at night-time.” 

But just upstairs at Ynot Lounge Bar, owners Ulugia Jay and Tasi Ah Fook-Schuster are considering closing their doors until the construction is done.

They only opened their bar six months ago, and say if they had been given proper notice and if the closure was made public knowledge, they may have reconsidered opening it at all. 

“This has taken three months business away from us, and they would have known about this six months ago,” Ms. Ah Fook-Schuster said. “It’s only been two weeks, and we have crashed.

“Right now, it’s not worth opening.”       

Had they been consulted more actively they would have asked for more business friendly options, they said, like reopening the road at night, or allowing two lanes of traffic to take turns passing through.

“We wish that everybody who would have been affected would have been called in together and they would have explained to us, because they are toying with everyone’s livelihoods,” she said.

Unlike other businesses in the area, YNot Lounge did receive a letter in November advising them of the closure. But Ulugia said they didn’t take up the invitation to email or call the L.T.A. because they did not take the offer seriously. 

“Most of that stuff, when it comes through, that’s what it is and there is not much you can do about it,” he said.

“At the end of the day, they have made up their minds. But looking back we should have just asked some questions.”

Leota Lene and Claire Leota of Siva Afi, which as well as printing and custom clothing have a restaurant, culture show and ice cream bar, said their hospitality business has taken a hit but their screen printing orders are alright.

Ms. Leota agreed that the alternative route should have been ready to go before the Vaisigano intersection was closed off, with the entrance to Vaipuna at Matautu flooding disastrously and not handling the influx in traffic well, with traffic down to one lane instead of two.

The L.T.A began work last week to improve the condition of the road.

“While we understand the need for this to happen, I think there could have been a little more thought gone into how to handle the intersection back here at Matautu-uta, they should have thought that through a bit better,” Ms. Leota said.

The couple received their letter of notification in late November. It states:

“We humbly wish to notify your organisation that the intersection on the eastern exit of the Vaisigano Bridge wil be closed from January 2020 until March 2020 […] the implications of this closure on the traffic during this period are clear and inevitable. We apologise for the inconvenience that this will cause, but we humbly request for your cooperation as we work together for the completion of the new Vaisigano Bridge.”

The email addresses and direct lines of two L.T.A officials are listed in the letter too, which is signed by Chief Executive Officer Galumalemana Taatialeoitiiti Tutvanu-Schwalger.

Ms. Leota said the letter gave them the opportunity to prepare for the closure by increasing their advertising in the newspapers and on social media. But the waterlogged detour was an unexpected extra hurdle.

Neither the Leotas nor the Ah Fook-Schusters understood that the road would be closed entirely during March until their interview with the Samoa Observer, even though it was written on the map showing an official needed to have explained it to the businesses better.

“The poor Sheraton, there will be no way to get to them. That is crazy,” Ms. Ah Fook-Schuster said.

“There has not been much thought on the impact of businesses in this area. There are very few of us, which is probably why they say they don’t have to worry,” Ms. Leota said.

Like the Coffee Bean and others in the area, the measles epidemic’s flow on effects hit their bottom lines too. Siva Afi’s printing business had just two school graduation orders in December, down from 15 the year before, and seven families cancelled their reunion orders. 

“But we’re not one of the 100 odd that lost their lives, so we don’t complain.”

Across the strip, businesses agreed the poor weather in the last fortnight has not helped turnout, but that they believe the closure will continue to impact their foot traffic even after the rain clears.

Some businesses are turning to the banks for solutions to tide them over, while others are looking to Government or the private sector lobby for help.

“I haven’t heard much from the Chamber of Commerce, you would think they would be jumping all over this, or reaching out to give advice or come in to fight for retailers,” Mr. Pedrana said.

“If it’s going to affect my business this much, shouldn’t there be some sort of compensation?”

It’s a question Ulugia and Ms. Ah Fook-Schuster are asking too. 

“We all pay taxes, and we are supposed to have access to our businesses. If they are going to close down the road they are closing down access to our business.”

In the meantime, the pair is asking Samoans to consider spending their time on the Waterfront, despite the detour.

“Just remember us,” Ms. Ah Fook-Schuster said.

“It’s like we’re in a totally different island, because of the mentality that we are out of the way. But remember, everyone here does have businesses, we have families, staff that need to get paid. If you can try and support us but having that scenic route, it will be worth your while. 

“We can be the new Matautu Island Resort!”

Comments are being sought from the L.T.A.

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