BERLIN, Pa. — Brett Custer has no doubt that the completion of an 11-mile U.S. Route 219 project will pay dividends for the region.
But it doesn’t necessarily mean the same for his Berlin convenience store, he said.
“Does it benefit the greater good? Yes. But it’s not helping downtown Berlin,” said Custer, who owns The Diamond market on Broadway Street.
In the six months since the newly built stretch of limited-access highway debuted in the central portion of Somerset County, residents and business owners in Berlin and Garrett — the communities bypassed by the new road — said they were noticing a difference.
But whether that difference has been a positive or a negative depends on whom you ask.
The region’s leaders worked for decades to get a four-lane connection between Somerset Township and Meyersdale, where limited-access highway picks up again toward the state line.
Once funded, the $330 million endeavor took five years of site work, bridge construction and paving to complete.
Somerset County officials and business leaders predict the project will be an economic driver for the region, bringing more visitors and millions in new investment in the decades to come.
“It took 40 years to get this done, so I’m glad it happened,” said Berlin resident Bernie Fochtman, 56. “Hopefully, we’ll see the final (few miles) happen a lot faster than that.”
“There’s no question, that this is an important project for our area,” Custer said. “But the change (in traffic) isn’t good for everyone.”
For nearly 30 years, Custer’s family has operated Diamond near the heart of Berlin, a coal and farming town of 2,000 residents.
He estimated his convenience store revenue and fuel sales — once bolstered by travelers — has dipped 10% in the six months since the new road debuted four miles west of Berlin.
In Garrett, Roadside Mini-Mart Manager Paula Brewer didn’t offer an estimate for her store’s recent losses.
But she called the drop “significant” and said there’s no guarantee her gas station will survive the aftermath.
Until November, truckers routinely stopped in for slices of pizza, drinks or quick snacks.
Other travelers would pull in for cigarettes and buy a few other items before heading on their way, Brewer said.
The local customer traffic has been steady but “we’ve had a lot of support from people passing through,” she said. “I guess time will tell what happens next.”
‘We’ve been preparing’
Custer said he has no plans to let the traffic shift decide his market’s future.
He remodeled The Diamond in January, adding outdoor goods and a beer cave.
After securing a hotel license earlier this year, he added guest rooms upstairs and stocked his walk-in cooler’s shelves with beer and other alcoholic offerings — creating a one-stop shop for guests and Berlin area residents.
Another expansion has video poker machines and a dining room space, while work continues on a kitchen that will enable The Diamond to become a full-service restaurant.
“We’ve been preparing for two years for the day that highway moved,” he said. “We’re not going to let it impact us. With increased foot traffic, we’re hopeful what we’ve lost will turn into a gain for our business.”
The road ahead
Work is already underway in Maryland to complete a four-lane link from Interstate 68 to the Pennsylvania state line.
At just under two miles of highway, the $60 million project is expected to be completed by 2021, Maryland transportation officials have said.
In Pennsylvania, efforts continue in the Cambria-Somerset region to get funding for the final segment of four-lane through the Salisbury area.
The region’s lawmakers back the effort, but state officials have been focusing transportation dollars on bridge work in recent years.
In recent weeks, all four of Somerset County’s commissioner primary winners — Republicans Colleen Dawson and Gerald Walker and Democrats Pamela Tokar-Ickes and Dan Hillegas — stressed the need to ensure that the highway project doesn’t get forgotten now that it’s so close to the finish line.
“We need to finish that road,” Hillegas said.