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Anyone taking the Central Windsor exit is familiar with the impacts of the roundabout construction at the intersection of Windsor Road and Windsor River Road. But even while nearby businesses face additional challenges and decreased foot traffic due to the construction, they are accepting and optimistic about the project, which will eventually allow for a SMART station to bring commuters to their storefronts daily.

SoCoNews spoke with multiple business owners along Windsor Road and Windsor River Road, with the consensus being that while they have definitely experienced impacts from dust, noise and decreased accessibility and therefore traffic, the project has been going well and will be in their interests long term.

Some businesses have even embraced the construction obstruction, offering themed promotions.

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Brenda Lynch stands in the parklet outside the Mutt Lynch Winery tasting room on Windsor Road, pointing at the roundabout construction site at the Windsor River Road intersection. Construction, which has impacted nearby businesses with dust, noise, congestion and decreased foot traffic, began on Aug. 23 and is scheduled to end in August 2022.

 

Get your hard hats

After years of fires and/or the coronavirus pandemic hurting tourism traffic, Brenda Lynch, owner and operator of the MuttLynch Winery tasting room on Windsor River Road, has learned how to pivot.

During the pandemic, she even converted her tasting room, which she’s occupied for eight years, into a pet store, allowing her to stay open as a dog-food-and-wine-by-the-bottle retailer when bars and restaurants were closed in 2020 and early 2021. Nearly every inch of the walls surrounding the tasting room are still covered in dog-themed merchandise, something she said has helped her stay in business.

“COVID was a real gut punch, as it was for everyone. When you realize you’re not considered essential, but the rent is essential. We pivoted, and I learned that dog food was essential,” Lynch said. “That’s made the difference. That has brought some locals in that maybe aren’t wine tasters.”

With additional outdoor seating through the town’s parklet program, and several months without any limitations on business or capacity other than the return of the indoor mask mandate, Lynch’s otherwise promising reopening was recently curbed by the roundabout construction, which began Aug. 23.

Immediately after the project began, Lynch had to pivot again. This time, in addition to continuing selling merchandise, she has implemented a construction-themed promotion: Hard Hat Happy Hour.

“Hard Hat Happy Hour was kind of a really fun moment for us to talk about what we’re doing here in Windsor. We’re fighting our way through a third roundabout since we started here. But that’s what a small city does. We grow, we expand, we improve,” Lynch said.

Every Friday, from 3 to 6 p.m., Lynch sells $5 glasses of wine while hosting games like Trivial Pursuit, corn hole and Jenga. And she has merchandise as well, including masks, not to mention Lynch wears a customized yellow hard hat to look the part herself.

Down the street, Laurie Shimizu of Mark Shimizu Design, a jewelry store, is also leaning into the project. She also has a yellow hard hat — hers decorated with diamonds with the words “Diamond in the Rough,” scrawled across the front.

Shimizu decorated the storefront with caution tape and signs co-opting the construction theme, something she said has helped her stay positive during what could otherwise be a worse situation.

“There’s so much negativity about the roundabout, but it has more (impact) on us than the residents out there complaining. But you know what? Let’s just have fun with it,” Shimizu said. “This is all for fun. We’re too stressed out these days to take any of this seriously.”

Not all businesses are faring as well as others, however. For instance, while bartender Tami Rackham of The Publican said business at the bar has been down but manageable, however, the clothing store Roachco across the street from the Windsor Visitor’s Center and closest to the construction is reportedly harder hit, as would-be customers think the store is closed.

Prandeep Pandi, owner and operator of Pohley’s Market on Windsor River Road, has been more severely impacted as well. For Pandi, the noise and dust aren’t the issue, but the increased traffic along Windsor River Road.

Pandi said that because convenience stores are all about, well, convenience, the long lines of traffic have been giving his competitors an edge, as customers choose to avoid the congestion and get their sundries elsewhere. A competing convenience store owner down the road confirmed that his store has seen an increase in business since the construction began.

 

Roundabout equals SMART Train equals more traffic

There’s no question the roundabout construction project has had negative impacts on nearby businesses in the downtown core, however, it’s seen as a necessary means to an end SMART train to Windsor.

Though the construction hurts in the short run, the SMART transit station will increase foot traffic to the area, from both commuters and potentially day trippers from across the Bay Area.

Plans for SMART to continue service north through Windsor are currently stalled due to litigation, however, the roundabout will have to be done at some point before it arrives.

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Laurie Shimizu and her son Ty stand outside Mark Shimizu Design on Windsor Road. Along with Brenda Lynch of Mutt Lynch Winery, Shimizu is leaning into the construction at the intersection with Windsor River Road, decorating her business with caution tape, among other nods to the project.

Although she supports the project, Lynch said the roundabout construction has significantly decreased traffic from tourists. Since things have more or less normalized after the COVID-19 lockdowns, Lynch was getting about 100 visitors from out of town as foot traffic each week. Lately, that’s down to about 13.

Hard Hat Happy Hour, however, has helped her promote her business among locals, rather than tourists alone.

“We’re getting locals in. The locals are your bread and butter. They’re the people who are going to keep doing business,” Lynch said. “There’s a solid group of the same people that come every week on their way out to dinner.”

But Lynch had no misconceptions that tourism is essential to both her business and others in the downtown core.

Over at the Windsor Visitor’s Center, just down the tracks from where the SMART station will be, Windsor’s Chamber of Commerce Director Beth Henry agreed that the roundabout has caused a decrease to foot traffic from tourists in the area, at a time when downtown businesses would otherwise be recovering from pandemic impacts.

“Foot traffic here in the visitor’s center has decreased drastically. That was true during the pandemic as well. This makes it slower to come out of that slump. The foot traffic for the local businesses is also impacted,” Henry said.

Henry said locals can help support the local economy by patronizing impacted businesses, however, Windsor’s economy is highly dependent on a return of the tourism industry following the pandemic.

“There is the feeling in the Downtown Merchants Association that you cannot solely rely on local customers to operate a tasting room or restaurant or even a retail space, and that you have to also appeal to the tourism sector. The tourism sector is seasonal and also industry-based, but it's true across all sectors to a certain extent,” Henry said.

“Tourism has been recovering, to a certain extent. It’s not back to pandemic levels, by any means, but we are seeing a slow recovery as people become more comfortable navigating risk management and as vaccination becomes more common.”

Still, even as we near the end of wildfire season with no major fires in the area so far, the real threat of continuous annual wildfires diminishing the tourism sector will continue to threaten local businesses.

Ultimately, fire and plague concern Lynch far more than construction impacts, which will certainly have long-term benefits.

“Pre-pandemic, pre-fires, our business was really a tourist destination. Since the Tubbs Fire, we have probably been closed for a month or more each year. The smoke gets so bad no tourists come during fire season, even if the doors are open. Meanwhile, my expenses say the same,” Lynch said.

She hopes Windsor businesses can work together to find creative solutions to the many obstacles they continue to face, saying that “high water floats all boats.”

 

Staff Writer

Brandon McCapes got his start in journalism at SRJC, when he covered the North Bay Fires in 2017. Since then, he has covered Sonoma County for a variety of publications, specializing in local politics and business reporting.

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