Brothers Dean and David Hoffman are still selling sweet corn, tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and other produce from their farm stand along Route 222 at Snyder Road in Maidencreek Township, but a more than two-year project in full swing to substantially widen the highway poses some challenges.
Many locals avoid traveling through the area of Routes 222 and 73, especially between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. when Hoffman’s Produce is open.
It’s in the middle of the 2-mile construction zone, which extends from the Berks Memorial Gardens cemetery to Dries Road to the south.
“Whenever people can get good produce, they’re going to find you,” Dean Hoffman said. “But they’ve got to be in the area or they’re not going to get to you.”
The $26 million project began in 2019 and includes construction of two roundabouts, one at the intersection with Schaeffer Road near Berks Memorial Gardens and one at Tamarac Boulevard/Genesis Drive, and installation of turn lanes and improved signage at the intersection with Route 73.
For motorists who travel Route 222, also known as Allentown Pike, between the Reading area and the Lehigh County line, perhaps the most important component is the elimination of one of Berks County’s most notorious bottlenecks. Route 222 will be widened from four to five lanes for the length of the project.
As the road is currently configured, a bottleneck occurs many times a day as traffic coming off the Route 222 expressway merges with northbound Business Route 222 (Allentown Pike) approaching the point where the two northbound lanes merge into one in the area of Dries Road.
PennDOT spokesman Ronald J. Young Jr. said the project is about 65% done and on track to be completed in November 2022.
That means businesses in the work zone will have to endure one more summer of vexation.
PennDOT took a piece of the Hoffman farm for a stormwater detention basin where Snyder Road intersects Allentown Pike, so the produce stand had to shift to the opposite side of Snyder.
The Hoffmans had to put temporary signs along the road to attract attention to the stand so people looking for it at its usual longtime spot don’t just drive by.
Those who do venture into the construction zone to access businesses find it takes some acclimatization, as gravel entrances with temporary directional signs have replaced well-marked asphalt and concrete curbs.
“The only things that make this work are patience and courtesy,” said Paula Taylor, who with her husband, Mike Andrews, owns and operates Meadowood Music, a stringed instrument store at 8521 Allentown Pike. “It requires a lot of courtesy and reliance on other people to be courteous.
“If you don’t wait for someone to let you in, you’ll probably end up in a fender-bender.”
Maidencreek TV & Appliance, 8261 Allentown Pike, was forced to demolish an old house that it used for its service department, along with a large portion of its showrooms, after PennDOT condemned a portion of the property to make room for additional lanes, said Kim Seidel, one the owners.
The state initially tried to force the business to relocate entirely, she said.
“We fought to stay here. We didn’t want to move, “ Seidel said. “We’re an established business. We’ve been here since 1976 and the last thing we wanted to do was move.”
When Maidencreek TV & Appliance saw a utility pole being installed so close to the front of the store, the owners were finally convinced it would be unsafe to keep the store where it is for the long term, Seidel said.
Footers have been laid for a new store that will be built further back on the property as an addition to its warehouse. The existing store will be razed to clear space for the new store’s parking lot.
Seidel said the impact of construction on business varies from day to day, depending on what construction activity is taking place near the store.
“I’ve had customers who will drive by the store and say, ‘I don’t know how to get in,’ ” she said.
The construction, combined with the state-ordered temporary shutdown last year during the earliest phase of the pandemic, have made for a challenging couple of years, Seidel said.
“We’ve been very blessed to still be in business,” she said.
Navigating the stretch
Redner’s Quick Shoppe, located on the southeast corner of Route 73 and Route 222, has seen a reduction of business due to the difficulty of customers getting in and out of the store, Redner’s Inc. spokesman Eric B. White said.
Redners’ corporate offices and distribution center are also in the construction zone, off Snyder Road next to the Hoffman farm, but the impact there is minimal because most truck drivers know to expect delays and plan their deliveries accordingly, White said.
“Construction has been going on for such a long time now, I think most people that travel live in the area or travel that frequently know what to expect or how to get around it,” he said.
Taylor and Andrews founded Meadowood Music in 2000 in Kutztown. They relocated to Route 222, just north of Route 73, in 2005.
The impact of construction on business is impossible to assess because of two other variables: the pandemic-related shutdown for about three months last year and the contentious presidential election.
Historically, the music instrument business sees a decline for a few months following a presidential election, Taylor and Andrews said. They believe it’s a phenomenon stemming from a feeling of doom among those who supported the losing party.
The music shop was open for only curbside pickup last year from March 15 to June 5 because it was deemed by the Wolf administration to be nonessential. In-person music lessons for 230 students stopped.
While all instructors eventually provided distance-learning via teleconferencing, the number of students engaged in lessons is about one-third of the pre-pandemic levels.
The impact of the construction in terms of accessing the business was greater in the winter and early spring before the construction shifted to the northbound side.
Meadowood sits along the southbound side.
Passing grades for PennDOT
PennDOT installed ground-level, orange direction signs with names for individual businesses or shopping centers to guide motorists across temporary ramps to the property entrances.
Taylor described a dance that motorists engage in with one another, especially with making left turns out of a business: A left-turning driver makes eye contact with a driver approaching in the closest lane. That driver will generally wave the left-turning driver through. This driver must take temporary refuge in the center turn lane, since it’s often impossible to see if traffic has cleared in the far lane, before merging into traffic.
“Nine out of 10 times the people realize you’re using the turn lane (to merge with traffic) and will let you in,” she said.
Tractor-trailer drivers tend to be the most courteous, she said.
Meadowood Music has kept in contact with customers through social media, email and other means of communication through the construction period, letting them know the safest way to access is by way of the CVS store just down the road and the parking lot to an adjacent shopping center that nearly connects the drug store to the music store.
Businesses along the corridor generally cooperate with one another, Taylor said.
She feels bad for businesses in highly competitive sectors such as restaurants. If it’s too troublesome to get there, people might go to another restaurant.
With a specialty store, people are more likely to put up with temporary inconveniences.
“If you need banjo or mandolin lessons, there’s not another music store 2 minutes down the road,” Taylor said.
Some businesses engage in PennDOT-blaming, but Taylor feels that is unproductive as well as unfair.
The PennDOT construction supervisors in the field office, located in one of the storefronts of the adjacent shopping strip, have been as cooperative as anyone could expect, Taylor said.
Three pipes needed to be installed at various depths across the Meadowood Music driveway. Rather than leave an open ditch for days, the contractor filled the hole to the surface after each installation so the driveway could be accessed.
Taylor said she’s come up with a ready response when asked about the difficulty of running a business in a construction zone.
“I just say, ‘It’s fun!’ ”