Tama-Toledo businesses have dim view of future after bypass

The old Highway 30 is temporarily closed west of Toledo. Photographed Friday, Dec. 17, 2010. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The old Highway 30 is temporarily closed west of Toledo. Photographed Friday, Dec. 17, 2010. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

The 7,500 vehicles a day that passed through Tama-Toledo on Highway 30 became a trickle last month when the first portion of a new bypass opened.

Restaurants, hotels and other businesses are feeling the pain.

Since acquiring the local landmark eight years ago, Kristy Tovar has made a decent living running the King Tower Restaurant on the east side of Tama. Since the $82 million bypass opened, though, King Tower is no longer visible from the highway. Tovar’s anything but confident about the restaurant’s future.

“I never really thought that having this highway change would make that much difference, because most of our customers were local. I’d probably say business has been cut at least in half or more,” she said.

At Granny’s Family Restaurant in Toledo, near the Highway 30 intersection with Highway 63, the story’s no better.

“Since they closed the road, I lost 50 percent of my business — and some days more than 50 percent,” said George Kaltsis, owner and operator of Granny’s.

Kaltsis closed for the year on Dec. 12. He hopes things will be better in the spring, when business usually picks up, and that he can reopen.

That’s also when the state hopes to complete an overpass at the west end of town that will enable motorists to exit the four-lane to the east, drive through town on Business Route 30 and then get back on the bypass to the west.

Since the days when it was known as the Lincoln Highway, Highway 30 has been the lifeblood of Tama-Toledo. Visitors recall the distinctive Indian head souvenirs sign at King Tower, which has been open since 1937, and the Lincoln Highway bridge that was an early architectural feature of the first transcontinental highway.

These towns are the first stop with fuel, food and lodging in more than 45 miles for travelers headed west from Cedar Rapids metro to the Meskwaki Bingo Casino, Marshalltown, Ames and points westward.

Shirley Downs, manager of the Designer Inn & Suites in Toledo, said business has held up reasonably well since the bypass opened, but she’s still concerned.

“Obviously, it’s going to hurt us,” Downs said. “We have the casino here, and we used to be able to say we’re a straight shot on Highway 30 from the casino. We can’t say that anymore.”

The Super 8 hotel in Toledo has seen reservations canceled by travelers, owner Dharmendra Patel said. The travelers figure they might as well overnight in Cedar Rapids if they have to get off Highway 30 to find the hotel in Toledo, Patel said.

Patel fears he hasn’t seen the worst, based on the experience of a friend who closed a grocery store in Texas after 28 years because a bypass was constructed around the town. Patel didn’t know when he bought the Super 8 that a bypass would be built.

Doug Ross, manager of the local Carquest auto parts store, said purchases of weather-related items, like windshield wiper blades, windshield wiper fluid and de-icer, are down since the bypass opened, because motorists no longer pass the store.

Ross is not as worried, though, because Carquest is about the only game in town when it comes to car parts.

"The gas stations and restaurants, I’m sure they’re seeing a decrease,” Ross said. “I can tell just from the traffic in front of their stores; it’s next to nothing.”

Local economic development officials see opportunities and challenges. Tama County Economic Development’s strategy includes strengthening the identity of Tama-Toledo, maximizing detours into the towns for impulse purchases and gathering information on real estate that has improved potential because of the bypass.

Caroline Dolezal, Tama-Toledo Chamber of Commerce coordinator, said many businesses in Tama and Toledo have signed up to advertise on IDOT’s blue highway services sign. That will improve their visibility, Dolezal said, although “that’s just another fee that the businesses have to fork out.”

Patel’s Super 8 has secured a spot on a services sign.

“Instead of making more money, you’re going to be spending more money to improve your visibility,” he said.

Brad Crawford is manager of the 54-year-old Big T Maid-Rite in Toledo. He said rumors are already flying about big restaurant chains like McDonald’s snapping up the good real estate along the bypass to open new restaurants.

Crawford is saving to buy a service sign on the bypass, but the cost will cut into funds he’d otherwise spend to advertise in the local newspaper and high school yearbook.

Dolezal said the initial decline in traffic was expected. She said traffic should rebound somewhat when the bypass is complete, and motorists can again drive through town on Business Route 30.

A chamber committee has been working for more than three years to develop welcome signs along the bypass that would hopefully entice motorists to stop.

“We don’t want just an ordinary sign,” Dolezal said. “We want an eye-catcher.”

The committee’s efforts have been thwarted by unexpected developments, however. The DOT put a sign right in front of an east-side site selected by the chamber for a welcome sign. Just after the committee selected a west-side location, earthmovers came and graded down the hill where the sign was to be located.

“We are going to wait until construction is complete, before we pick a location on the west side,” Dolezal said.

Dolezal is hopeful the businesses and residents the bypass may attract will more than outweigh the loss of traffic on the old highway.

Manager of the Designer Inn & Suites doesn’t share Dolezal’s view.“It’s never good for business,” Shirley Downs said, “when a highway bypasses a town.”

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