Highway 101 bypass at Willits set to open, raising hopes and anxiety on Main Street

The controversial Highway 101 bypass around Willits will open next month, raising hopes of a revival downtown, where some businesses fear a loss of tourist traffic.|

WILLITS - On the outskirts of this town that bills itself as the “Gateway to the Redwoods,” a $300 million bypass first proposed by road engineers 60 years ago to relieve Highway 101 traffic is now complete except for some finishing touches.

The nearly 6-mile bypass skirts Willits to the east, and beginning Nov. 3 it will divert highway travelers around this city of roughly 5,000 situated in the heart of Mendocino County and along the main north-south route for commercial and vacation traffic.

For some, the long-awaited project is cause for celebration, enabling Willits' transformation into a more pedestrian-friendly community, without the constant stream of big-rig trucks and vehicles clogging Main Street. For others, that change is cause for trepidation, perhaps depriving the community of some of the steady business from motorists that supports its economy.

One thing is clear. After decades on the drawing board, years spent on planning and almost four years of construction, the controversial bypass will debut next month outside a North Coast town bent on embracing its future while still holding its breath.

“It's here. It's happening,” said Willits Mayor Bruce Burton.

Decades of delay

Views from the two-lane bypass, which is raised in sections, offer sweeping views of Little Lake Valley, taking in pastures, wetlands and mountains. The bucolic scenery belies the debate, protests, lawsuits, construction snafus and budget issues that contributed to decades of delay for the highway project.

It remains a divisive topic for many Willits residents, and Caltrans' proposal to one day expand the bypass by two lanes could revive the protests and court challenges that stalled work three years ago.

Opponents focused on its size, route and encroachment into wetlands and proximity to Native American cultural sites. Caltrans is spending $80 million to offset the loss of wetlands, with plans to create new habitat and rehabilitate streams, transportation officials said.

When work on the bypass began, it was expected to cost $210 million.

Caltrans also was delayed by failures to meet environmental regulators' deadlines and the collapse of framework for a 150-foot section of the viaduct during construction, which seriously injured three workers in January last year. State officials levied a total of $165,000 in fines against Caltrans and two construction companies for the collapse.

“We are very pleased that this project, conceived over 60 years ago and delayed many times, is finally becoming a reality,” Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie said. “The completion ceremony will be a tribute to the many hundreds of Caltrans employees, as well as local leaders and members of the public, who have dedicated time over the years to support, develop, and complete this project.”

As the bypass nears completion, the main concern voiced by residents here is about the potential loss of business when traffic is shunted around the economically stressed city, where the estimated median household income in 2014 was $34,186, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Its economy used to be dependent on logging and farming. Its largest employers now include the hospital, school district and manufacturing businesses. Retail and service-based business, much of it dependent on tourism, also are important and are the most likely to be affected by the bypass.

“It's a mixed bag,” said Tom Mann, owner of the Brickhouse Coffee cafe at Main and Commercial streets, of the bypass opening. He said about a third of his business is from travelers passing through town. The bypass might lead to a drop in business, or it might not, Mann said.

“Any time there's change, there's opportunity,” he said.

Some businesses optimistic

Down the road at the Cat's Meow, a “contemporary mercantile” shop, owner Linda Matz is trying to be optimistic. About a quarter of her business is from people driving through. Visitors tend to buy the more expensive items, purchasing what they want because they're on vacation and may never pass through again, Matz said.

“I'm anxious,” she said.

Similar sentiments were shared by Nick Durupt, who works at J.D. Redhouse & Co. on Main Street, a general store offering everything from coffee and handmade sweets to pet supplies and clothing. He said a good number of the store's sales are generated by customers who stop in while passing through town on their way to and from the famed redwood forests of Humboldt County.

“I'm sure we will be impacted” by the loss of traffic, he said. “It's scary.”

Motels and fast-food restaurants that cater to highway travelers also are bracing for the change.

Most of the customers of the Aztec Grill inside the Chevron station on South Main Street are passing through, said employee Yalitza Carrillo. It remains to be seen how many stop in Willits in the future, when that requires taking one of the highway ramps, located north and south of town.

Many business owners believe it's likely they will because the city has more services and shops than any other between Ukiah, 23 miles to the south, and Eureka, 134 miles to the north.

“The way we see it, there's nothing (in services) going north,” said Roshan Patel, owner of The Old West Inn, which depends almost entirely on tourists for business. He's spruced up the hotel, giving it a new coat of paint and refurnished rooms with granite counter tops to keep customers coming. He said he's also the only overnight stopover in town with electric car chargers.

“We really don't know” what's going to happen next month, but “we're definitely being very optimistic,” he said.

Fazan Fayaz, owner of a nearby Arco station, said he's not overly concerned. He's located near the corner of Highway 20, so he'll continue to be on the route people take to go to the Mendocino Coast. He considered the impact of the bypass before he purchased the station a year ago and concluded it wouldn't be a problem.

“It will have some effect. But I'm hoping it'll be a positive, not a negative,” he said.

Several cities bypassed

Willits is one in a long line of California cities to be bypassed by Highway 101. They included Ukiah in the 1960s and Cloverdale in the early 1990s. While Highway 101 will continue to narrow and slow traffic through other small towns, like Hopland and Laytonville, the Willits bypass will eliminate the last stop light on the highway between San Francisco and Eureka, a 270-mile stretch.

City and business groups said they are doing what they can to ease the transition. They are working on plans to ensure tourists know about the town and see its main drag as an inviting stopover. Caltrans funded a redesign study for Main Street and is spending about $16 million for basic roadway, interchange and sidewalk improvements. The city is negotiating for help making the route more attractive to pedestrians as well.

“Our intent is to make the downtown more consumer friendly,” said Burton, the Willits mayor. He voiced hope the area would become more pleasant when the highway traffic no longer clogs its streets.

Proposed improvements include bicycle lanes and street designs that slow traffic. Once the city owns Main Street and takes over its management, it will also be able to partially or completely shut down the road for special events, including farmers markets, Burton noted.

The city and business leaders also plan to spend money marketing the city outside of the area.

“We're working in a lot of different areas to really make Willits more of a destination,” said Willits Chamber of Commerce Director Lynn Kennelly. There will be several phases of marketing, the first of which will entail spending about $15,000, she said.

Event to raise money

A dinner event Oct. 29 is expected to both advertise the city and raise money - about $20,000 - for future marketing.

The 250 invitees will have a view of the Little Lake Valley from atop the viaduct while enjoying music, appetizers and a full-course meal of locally produced food prepared by multiple chefs. The $100 dinners already are sold out and there's a waiting list, Kennelly said.

Chamber president Lisa Epstein said the event is not a celebration of the controversial bypass itself.

“We're celebrating the opportunity to take our downtown back,” Epstein said.

Caltrans has named a raised milelong section of the bypass after Jesse D. Pittman, a 27-year-old Navy SEAL from Willits who was among 30 troops killed when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan in 2011.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 707-462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com.

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