One-way Rt. 9 travel is again passing through Hillsboro and some area businesses are seeing an uptick in business after being hit by the combined impacts of months-long detours and the COVID-19 pandemic. Others continue to struggle with the reduction in traffic.
Loudoun’s northwestern artery has been either restricted or entirely closed to traffic through the town since early March, as construction crews work on the town’s $14.3 million traffic calming and pedestrian safety project. Thanks to those extended road closures, the project is expected to wrap up early next year, but it has diverted visitors from area businesses.
To help those businesses during the full road closure, which lasted from May 4 to Aug. 13, the town installed wayfinding signage along the local detour and released a local detour map featuring the names of 38 businesses—including wineries, breweries, bed and breakfasts and farm stores—to direct regional visitors to their front doors. The town also released a business directory on ReThink9.com and published blog and social media posts encouraging visits to those area businesses.
And on Aug. 14, the town opened the highway to westbound traffic on the weekends—from 2-7 p.m. on Fridays and from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
Hillsborough Vineyards Master Brewer Tolga Baki said business during the second weekend of the partial Rt. 9 reopening through town was “noticeably better” than it was during the full highway closure. But, he said, business is still down compared with last year—by about 25 to 30 percent. For now, he’s working to maintain his operations as usual.
“We will continue making our wines and craft beers and taking great care of everyone that supports us in our time of need,” he said.
Farther west at Bozzo Family Vineyards,proprietor Steve Bozzosaid his winery experienced no significant change in business since the road reopened to westbound traffic last month. But he has seen business return to the level it was last year. Bozzo’s July 2020 numbers were back on track with those of July 2019.
Previously, Bozzo noted a 50-percent reduction in business caused by a combination of the full road closure through town and COVID-19-related restrictions.
“We attribute recovery to increased marketing efforts directed to customers unaffected by the road closure … and increasing desire, and comfort, of our customers to visit us,” he said.
Breaux Vineyards General Manager Jennifer Breaux said she has no information to show that business has changed since the highway reopened to westbound traffic on weekends. She said her winery, which is located about four miles northeast of Hillsboro, has actually even seen a bit of a decline in business recently.
“I can’t say it’s gotten better,” she said, adding that visitation on weekdays oddly continues to increase. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
To better accommodate her customers, Breaux has done away with a 20-minute grace period for those who are running late for their reservations. She said she recognizes the added time and stress her customers experience when trying to navigate the local detours around Hillsboro to get to her winery.
Other area business owners have experienced a sharp decline in business, which some attribute directly to the road work and not to the COVID-19 pandemic at all. One of those is Paige Critchley of Paige’s Pit Stop farmers’ market, which is located 5.5 miles east of Hillsboro directly off Rt. 9.
Critchley said business for her dropped 45 percent on May 4—the day the highway through Hillsboro was closed in its entirety. Critchley said that before then, her market was as busy as usual, even during the pandemic and subsequent reduction in highway traffic. Many of Critchley’s customers are commuters who head toward the city in the mornings and home toward West Virginia in the evenings. Now that Rt. 9 through Hillsboro is closed to westbound traffic on weekday evenings, many of those commuters are no longer driving past Critchley’s farmers’ market, opting for the official regional detour onto Rt. 7 instead.
Critchley said some of her customers told her they would return to her market once Hillsboro’s road project completes. That won’t happen until April 2021, according to estimates by town leaders.
“They took the whole year away from me,” Critchley said.
Critchley said she was prepared for the highway through Hillsboro to partially reopen in late June or early July—the town’s originally announced reopening date that was later pushed to mid-August. In preparation, she planted more produce, which she now can’t sell and instead gives away for free. Each week, Critchley said she donates 300 pounds of produce and meat to Tree of Life Ministries’ food pantry.
“I’m literally just giving stuff away because it’s rotting,” she said.
Critchley said the town and county have done nothing to help her, although her business is featured on the town’s local detour wayfinding map. She said County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) promised to work with the Board of Supervisors to help with marketing if Critchley reported a decline in business, but nothing has happened.
“There is just no traffic out here,” she said. “It’s a nightmare. … I’m so frustrated with it.”
Randall said town and county leaders followed through with the promise they made to Critchley and other area businesses—to install wayfinding signs to direct traffic to those businesses.
“Everything that was promised has been done,” she said, adding that town and county leaders would be amenable to working out new potential solutions to help increase business to the area if they, or the business owners, bring those ideas to the table.
Still, some other businesses along the Rt. 9 corridor are doing well, like Sunset Hills Vineyard, which is located less than a mile south of Rt. 9. Co-owner Diane Canney said that while she is noticing more customers visit her winery lately, that increase in business is most likely attributable to people getting more comfortable leaving their homes amid the pandemic, rather than winery-goers opting to forgo a trip west of Hillsboro and instead stop short at Sunset Hills. “I think it’s more pent up interest in getting out,” she said.
Hillsboro town leaders have stated numerous times that the highway through town would not close entirely again until next year. The existing traffic patterns will remain in place until town leaders see a need to make a change, according to Mayor Roger Vance. In all, Hillsboro’s Rt. 9 traffic calming project should complete by early April 2021.