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Marta Plaza Project threatens Decatur businesses 

Construction scaring away patrons

On the surface, Sat., June 10, seemed like just another tranquil evening in Decatur. On the second and third floor at Birdi's, couples gathered around dinner tables, smiling and listening along as Marlyn Campbell and George Price played a lovely acoustic version of Van Morrison's "Moondance." Downstairs on the first floor, locals queued up to the bar while waiters dipped in and out of the kitchen, carrying plates of food.

All was not well, however. Outside Birdi's, there were massive hills of dirt and tractors encased by a fence that stretched the entire block and bottlenecked the sidewalk. This was the detritus of the city of Decatur's MARTA Plaza Project, which will renovate the Decatur MARTA Station and half of Decatur Square. The yearlong project is helmed by Archer-Western Contractors, a Chicago-based corporation with offices around the country, including Atlanta.

"It's going to be beautiful when it's done," says Viki Woodard, owner of Birdi's since June 2005. But in the meantime, several restaurants and shops, all of them located on Sycamore Street in the Square, say they have been losing patrons. When the project began last September, the fence was fitted with a dark green screen, inadvertently lending protection for illegal activity and scaring away potential customers, she says. "We had panhandlers, we had drug dealers," Woodard says. My Friend's Place, a chain restaurant, relocated its Square location to 125 Clairemont Ave. Others may be forced out of business.

After receiving numerous complaints, the city of Decatur recently agreed to move the fence farther away from the sidewalk and remove its green covering. The city also told the police department to patrol the area more frequently. "Obviously, it's a difficult situation because of the extent of the construction project," says Hugh Saxon, Decatur's deputy city manager for development. The project's expected completion date is January 2007, but Saxon says it may be finished by October 2006.

"It has made for a more pleasing atmosphere," Woodard says of the alterations. "But our sales are continuing to decline."

On June 10, Sycamore restaurants including Birdi's, Raging Burrito and Sushi Avenue held a "battle of the bands" benefit to raise awareness of the issue. Woodard is petitioning the city, county and Gov. Sonny Perdue's office to provide tax cuts and/or subsidies during construction. But Saxon says the city can't lend financial help. "It's illegal," he says without elaboration.

Whether it's legal or not, Woodard says, something needs to be done. "Either we get some community help, or some of us may not be here when they're done," she says. "We're not trying to kick the city. We just need some help."

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