Tracy Pickens suspects there will be grumbling at first.
He heard it a few years ago when the city buried power lines on Laurel Street. The construction created obstacles that customers had to circumvent to access some downtown shops. Business owners didn’t appreciate that.
“Construction is going to inhibit customers from getting here. We know that,” said Pickens, co-owner of the Black Water Market on the corner of Laurel and Fourth Avenue. “But sometimes you’ve got to give a little bit for the end result to be so great. And we have seen how good the streets look on the other ones after they’re done.”
Conway leaders on Monday agreed to move forward with the final utility burial in the historic downtown area. A 1,700-foot stretch of Fourth Avenue power lines — along with other utility wires — will go underground. The two-year project will cost about $1.2 million and eliminate the avenue’s overhead lines from Kingston Street to Beaty Street.
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“Fourth Avenue is the last piece of the puzzle,” said Conway Mayor Alys Lawson. “We’re excited to get one whole area completed.”
Conway has been entombing utility lines for more than 10 years, said city administrator Bill Graham. Santee Cooper customers in the city pay a fee on their power bills for underground wiring projects. The utility matches part of that contribution. Graham said about $869,000 goes into a fund for burying power lines each year.
Along with lowering the lines, city officials have added ornamental street lights to spruce up the sidewalks.
“It’s made a difference in the appearance of downtown,” Graham said. “You have a clean look. … The poles are down. You’ve got all the wiring down. You have the decorative street lights that come up as part of the project.”
Planning for the Fourth Avenue project, including engineering and coordinating with other utilities, will probably take about a year, Graham said. Conway residents can expect to see orange barrels next fall and construction is expected to take about a year.
The same work has already been done on parts of Main and Laurel streets, Graham said, as well as Third Avenue. City officials are in the process of resurfacing Elm Street, and that’s the final stage of the line conversion there.
Graham said the underground utilities fund has about $8.2 million in it and so far the projects have only cost about $6.3 million, meaning there is more than enough money there to pay for placing the Fourth Avenue lines in the earth.
Once that project is finished, Conway leaders want to look at burying lines on U.S. 501. Graham said that construction would run from U.S. 378 to Mill Pond Road.
Along with the aesthetic benefits, Conway officials said putting lines below the surface will make the city less susceptible to power outages during storms.
But the most noticeable changes will be visual. At least that’s what officials are hoping for.
“I don’t pay much attention to them,” said Gary Long, owner of The Music Shop, as he stared up at the lines outside his Fourth Ave store. Then he looked down the street at the open skies.
“Now that you mention it….”
Lawson, the mayor, said the lack of power lines in downtown feels commonplace now.
“You forget how cluttered it was,” she said. “Now we sort of take it for granted.”
City officials, however, do expect the project will get noticed once construction begins. And Pickens hopes his fellow business owners will be patient.
“It’s well worth it,” he said. “Over the next 20 years, think of how nice it’s going to be.”