Merchants in downtown Savage say they're not happy with the impact an ambitious project to rebuild Hwy. 13 is having on their businesses -- and they fear that the problems won't disappear when the temporary orange cones and construction barriers go away.

Their concern centers on the permanent closing of access roads that previously allowed drivers to turn off the highway into the commercial district from Natchez, Ottawa and Princeton avenues. A lesser headache is the temporary closing of another access point at Lynn Avenue, which is to reopen next month.

The closures are part of a larger goal to improve mobility and safety on the highway, a principal artery that connects Hwy. 169 and Interstate 35W. Two Hwy. 13 intersections in particular -- at Hwy. 101 and at County Road 5 -- have had unusually high accident rates over the years, said Lezlie Vermillion, Scott County deputy administrator. "Study after study has shown a direct correlation between the number of access points and safety." Vermillion said more access points translate to higher crash rates.

The original plan called for closing off just Natchez and Ottawa. Budget issues and changes to accommodate railroads operating in the area resulted in the current design that also closes off Princeton. The city agreed to this and other changes in order to retain a $3.9 million federal grant to help pay for the project. Even so, some business owners wonder if too many turnoffs have been eliminated.

"It has really messed things up," said Marcos Gomez, whose El Loro restaurant has operated just off the highway near Ottawa for 12 years.

Gomez says business at the Savage location is down about 40 percent. His other restaurants in Burnsville and Shakopee are performing well and have been supporting the Savage outlet, which he said is now unprofitable.

The City Council recently approved a $600,000 settlement to the owner of the Motor Mart gas station at the Princeton intersection. He claimed his business had been permanently harmed as result of the changes. City Attorney Ric Rosow told council members the payout was about half the damages the city might have had to pay if the owner, Cory Townsend, pursued and won his case in court. That estimate didn't include attorney's fees.

Mayor Janet Williams said the $600,000 amount was determined through negotiations by the city's and Townsend's attorneys. Townsend could not be reached for comment.

Williams said no other merchants are pursuing compensation for lost business. Hers was the only dissenting vote on the settlement, which was approved 4-1.

"It's easy to hang problems just on the construction," she said.

Although the economic downturn hurt sales at Savage Art Studios & Gallery, the highway project also contributed to a significant decline in business, said Jo Storey, who operates the downtown studio. The impact of losing the access points "played a definite role" in her decision to close the business at year-end, she said.

Jim Lewis, who closed a restaurant and coffeeshop in Savage's historic train depot this summer, said the highway project was the single biggest factor that caused him to shut down.

"Businesses like ours that depended on drive-by traffic have been significantly impacted," he said. "The road construction was frustrating enough, but closing the access to downtown has had a long-term impact on anybody that had a business of convenience."

Gomez said he would move if he didn't own the building that houses his restaurant. For now he is trying to offset the lost business by cutting the working hours and number of employees. He hopes customers will start to come back when the construction is completed in November.

Dan Neisen, owner of Neisen's Sports Bar & Grill, agreed that some of his lost business may return when the temporary inconveniences like lane restrictions are removed. Neisen, whose restaurant is near the Princeton intersection, said business has fallen about 20 percent, but he believes it could rebound when the turn-off on Lynn reopens.

City Administrator Barry Stock said the changes in Hwy. 13 reflect a balance between safety and convenience for drivers, including the ability to reach downtown merchants. He believes that in time businesses affected by the highway will recover as drivers become accustomed to the changes.

"I'm optimistic, but I can't say how long it could take," he said.

"As highways evolve, sometimes the businesses around them evolve also," Vermillion said. "Over time, the type of uses we see there could ultimately change."

Susan Feyder • 952-746-3282