Miami Herald: “Road work on Flagler is mostly finished. Now merchants hope their businesses recover.”

Jorge Marrero looked out the window of his Flagler Street salon, a business he has run for 16 years, and wondered how much longer he could keep going.

In this building on the northwest corner of Flagler and 12th Avenue, one of several blocks ravaged by 2 1/2 years of disruptive construction work that is now largely complete, Marrero’s salon is one of a few storefronts with the lights on. Barely.

“I don’t have any savings left,” he said. A few feet away, a woman quietly eyed the reflection of her hairdresser, one of the few employees left at Siglo XXI Beauty Salon. “Not a penny.”

He hopes business will bounce back now that the mounds of dirt, heavy equipment and orange barriers that obstructed the walk to his front door are gone.

Merchants suffered as debris and unpaved dirt paths made it difficult for pedestrians, especially the elderly, to move around this working-class area. Customers who drove couldn’t find easy parking. Some storefronts were obscured by equipment and construction activity that blocked signs.

Now, there are several empty windows, some still caked with construction dust, with “for rent” signs displayed.

The roads are freshly paved, new drainage pipes are in place underground, and a new bike lane is open. Crews redid sidewalks and pedestrian ramps. Property owners and government officials said the upgrades were necessary, particularly the improved drainage to prevent flooding. But delays caused by weather and unexpected problems caused the project to drag on past deadlines.

A few lanes were coned off Monday morning as crews inspected storm drains and touched up the concrete on curbs. But the Flagler Street project is “substantially complete,” according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

The stretch of Flagler from Second Avenue to 14th Avenue is now open for business — though noticeably less business than before.

Marrero gestured toward the fresh asphalt outside the salon’s front door, where in 2017, front-end loaders and orange barrels framed a blue road sign that was supposed to help people find his business, Beauty Salon Unisex. He said he’s lost money, clientele and employees, leaving him feeling like he’s starting from scratch — a fact he hopes is not lost on politicians whom he expects to tout the completion of the job.

“Nobody’s come here to ask how we’re doing,” he said. “We haven’t received support from anybody.”

A small bit of relief has touched some businesses hurt by the construction. As part of a countywide small business grant program, Commissioner Eileen Higgins recently delivered checks ranging from $2,000 to $4,000 to about a dozen businesses on or near the blocks of Flagler that were rebuilt.

In a statement announcing the grants, Higgins acknowledged that it will take time and effort for the businesses to recover.

“We have much more to do to make this business corridor a thriving economic hub for these Mom and Pop shops,” she said. “Flagler has great potential, and I will continue to monitor progress on road, trash and transportation improvements until we collectively achieve our goal, which is to make Flagler a positive experience for those who work, live or do business there.”

Many businesses won’t have that chance. Delays prolonged the pain, frustrating business owners who expected work to be done sooner. The state, which hired Pinnacle Consulting to oversee the contractor on the project, Russell Engineering, has pointed to rain delays and unexpected issues with underground pipes.

Merchants anecdotally speak of a few dozen businesses that closed or were forced to downsize as a result of the construction. Marrero recalled a nearby restaurant that went out of business fast, and the owners left behind rotting food.

“We thought there might be a dead body in there,” he said.

Some kitchens are still open, but it’s a struggle.

“The businesses have deteriorated on this street,” said Olga Orllana, a server at Restaurant El Familiar. She witnessed the worst of the construction woes. “Nobody walked in. Who would walk in, with that mess outside?”