Will US Route 33 Bypass Help Or Hurt Nelsonville?

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Sign in bank window, Nelsonville(Photo: Sam Hendren / WOSU)
Sign in bank window, Nelsonville(Photo: Sam Hendren / WOSU)

In a ceremonial ribbon cutting last week, Ohio transportation officials opened the Nelsonville Bypass. The 8 ½ mile stretch of 4-lane through the Wayne National Forest relieves traffic congestion in Nelsonville in northwest Athens County. But many residents wonder what impact the bypass will have on the future of their city.

Before the $200 million bypass opened, traffic traveling U.S. Route 33 was funneled onto the 2-laned Canal Street through Nelsonville. It might have meant prosperity for drive-throughs and gas stations, but at times it was a traffic nightmare. Nelsonville city manager Mark Hall:

“If you drive through what was Route 33 today, the first thing you will notice is that the 1,700 trucks a day that go through the 8th busiest truck corridor in the state of Ohio are now gone. And that really jumps out at you,” Hall says.

Residents say their community is quieter now. Rosalie Whitington lives on what’s known as Public Square in the heart of the city.

“I miss the noise of all the trucks going by but I think it’s going to be good. We don’t seem to have a loss of cars – that’s the main thing, people that shop usually come in cars,” Whitington says.

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And that is the crux of the question. Will Nelsonville survive economically now that some 20,000 cars and trucks a day have been diverted away? I asked residents what they thought would happen and got a wide array of responses.

“As far as Nelsonville, I think it’s going to become another ghost town,” said a man who would only identify himself as “Moses.”

“I don’t think it’s going to affect Nelsonville one way or the other,” said Timothy Riser.

“I think that the bypass is going to be wonderful. All they have to do is put some signs out to tell people where we’re at down here,” said Wynona Duncan.

Hall, the city manager, says it’s premature to speculate about the bypass’s impact.

“I don’t think anyone knows how it will affect us. We’re doing our best to be a destination for folks to come. We do have Rocky Outdoor Gear store that’s here and we do have Hocking Valley Scenic Railway that draws in somewhere around 60,000 people a year here, as well.

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There’s also a group of tenacious entrepreneurs who are taking up shop on Public Square. One of them is Dan Jones co-owner of Full Brooks Café, a coffee shop located in the 1840s-era Dew House Hotel.

“I’m sure that we will lose some measure of business, but we remain optimistic that the majority of our business in Nelsonville is in here already. With the college and 5,000 students and a lot of faculty and a couple of major employers and over 5,000 residents of the town, we still are very confident that the business will continue to thrive and we’re just excited for it to seem like a small town without a highway going through the middle of it,” Jones says.

Just up the wide, silver bricked sidewalk is a store named Random House. Owner Donna Morgan has run a similar store in Athens for more than 30 years, now she says, she’s discovered Nelsonville.

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“Just take a look at it. It’s beautiful. It’s a vibrant little town. We’re trying just so hard to hang on and grow as a little business community,” Morgan says.

Morgan sells antiques, used furniture and jewelry. She’s in a historic block that also includes Stuart’s Opera House a popular musical venue.

“I had never felt the bypass would be a problem. We put our store in here 8 months ago and I thought we were getting in just in time. I think things will start to happen here. It will be easier to park; it will be easier to go to events,” Morgan says

And a few doors away is another business rehabilitation in progress, an inn soon to be known as The Little B. Here’s owner Miki Brooks:

“We believe the bypass is going to help us. And those people that want to come over here aren’t going to have to fight the other 99 out of a 100 who are just passing through so it will be a lot easier to get to, a more pleasant experience,” Brooks says.

So while drivers appreciate the time they save bypassing Nelsonville, a recreated city might just emerge.

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