FLEETWOOD-Halfway between West Jefferson and Boone sits 221 Grocery, a little brick building that is the only fillup station between the two towns.
It’s been a convenience store for nearly three-quarters of a century, and it’s a popular local hangout for folks who like to sit in the shade on the weather worn bench in front of the shop and catch up with old friends.
But 221 Grocery owner Ronnie Cheek said all that will likely come to a close by year’s end. State transportation officials need much of the property for the ongoing widening of US-221 and he said the changes won’t allow him to keep the shop open.
“The project will take the convenience out of the store,” Cheek said. “Then what do I have?”
Years in the making
Cheek is among the first business owners to be impacted by the widening project.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation plans to widen more than 16-miles of U.S. 221, transforming the curvy two-lane highway into a four-lane with a divided median. The project will stretch from the intersection of U.S. 421 in Deep Gap to the U.S. 221 Business/N.C. 88 intersection in Jefferson.
It’s a project championed by the late Steve Goss, a former North Carolina State Senator who worked to see the widening come to life, that’s meant to make the road safer for more cars, relieve traffic congestion woes and reduce crashes.
The project has been in development for years, but Vannoy Construction only started work on the project in April of this year. The massive $154 million project will take at least 15 years to finish, according to NCDOT officials, which puts the completion date sometime in early 2030.
Widening hits hard for some
And while the road could bring a host of benefits to Ashe County, Cheek simply shakes his head at the toll it’ll take on his business.
“The project is going to end up taking my gas tanks, my diesel pump and nearly all of my parking,” Cheek said, watching cars pass his busy section of U.S. 221.
He said the state has requested he move his fuel tanks within 90 days – he could do that as late as January or February – but has made the decision to do so sooner to save money.
“Honestly those are really slow sales months for us, so I don’t think I need to drag it out,” Cheek said. “So I’m planning on closing the store by the end of the year.”
The widening project is broken into five sections, which allows transportation officials time to acquire property through eminent domain and plan other stretches of the project. As that process moves forward, other property owners along the route are also dealing with their own issues.
The NCDOT has moved ahead with condemnation filings for more than a dozen parcels of property along the route, according to court filings.
According to a presentation made by Raleigh-based attorney Stan Abrams of the NC Eminent Domain Law Firm, NCDOT has the right to acquire property for legitimate purposes such as road construction as long as they give “just compensation” for the land.
After multiple appraisals and negotiations, if the state and property owners can’t come to an agreement, the state can file a civil action to acquire the property though the NCDOT must deposit with the court the amount of money it believes is “just compensation.”
And property owners can challenge the state’s payment in court in an effort to increase the payment based on factors like the project’s impact on business revenue. It’s unclear at press time, however, if any of the property owners impacted by the condemnation filings have filed a response to NCDOT’s motion.
For others, like Teresa Hamby, the owner of Fleetwood Antiques near the old Fleetwood Elementary School, the process has been easier to take.
“It’s really been painless so far,” Hamby said. “We’ve had our property appraisal but no offer. We understand that it’s a slow process.”
Hamby said the state will take roughly half of her property which lies along the edge of the current section of road, though her parking and business should largely be unaffected, she said.
The proposed route will, however, take out her business’s existing well, so the state has agreed to drill her a new one several feet away.
She’s most worried about access to the business since the road’s median will keep many people traveling north from being able to turn left into her store.
“They’re going to give me an intersection here on the corner, but people traveling north will have to go down turn around and come back south,” Hamby said. “I wonder if some people will just look at that as too much work.”
Cheek said he’ll be able to keep his building and the rental home that sits next to it, but he’ll likely be forced to rent the current convenience store space to someone else.
“I think it hurts my kids the most,” Cheek said. “This place is worth a lot more to them if I was able to keep it a convenience store.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr.