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Store owner feels pinch from Cherry Road Pennies project

The widening of South Cherry Road between Main Street and Heckle Boulevard in Rock Hill might be good in the long run.

But the ongoing construction has left convenience store owner JoJu Thomas with lagging sales and tax bills that have not lagged.

It also has left Thomas with what he says are cracked parking areas at the buildings he owns; an entry into his store that is difficult to see; and, at times, construction equipment parked on or near his property.

The widening, part of York County's Pennies for Progress road-construction program, has been going on since last year. The street is mainly residential, but Thomas lost part of his store's property to the wider road.

The new road also includes a retaining wall that partially hides the only sign that the city of Rock Hill will allow Thomas to have. The city has allowed only smaller signs in recent years.

"During all this, my business is down," said Thomas, an immigrant from India who opened Lilly Mart in 2004. "Lottery is down more than half. Gasoline, more than 60 percent. Groceries, more than half.

"How am I supposed to pay the taxes that the county and city expect?"

Since last year, Thomas has been at odds with contractors over the use of his property.

Joe Riley with Callahan Grading, the contractor for the project, said there was an informal agreement between the company and Thomas over equipment storage and other concerns.

Callahan's lawyer, Dan D'Agostino, said Friday that the company denies any wrongdoing. However, he said that after speaking with Thomas' lawyer, he sent a check as a settlement offer with the expectation that the matter was resolved.

But Thomas said he didn't agree to allowing contractors to use his parking lot. He also said he has not resolved what he says is damage to his property, including the parking lot adjacent to a building he owns next door.

Thomas' lawyer, Don Harper, said the offer came but has not been accepted. The $2,000 offer is too low, Thomas said.

"That will not cover what I have lost," Thomas said. "I can't survive here. Customers can't find me anymore."

Thomas has even called police to complain about alleged trespassing because of the parking of equipment. As recently as Jan. 7, police told both Thomas and the contractor that the problem was a civil matter that police could not resolve.

All property owners on that stretch of Cherry Road were paid under federal guidelines for the road widening, and that payment included loss of use during construction, said Phil Leazer, the York County official overseeing the Pennies program.

Leazer said the contractors told him of their informal agreements with Thomas - a common way of handling disputes over equipment and entry points during construction.

"The contractors told me they have bent over backwards in this case," Leazer said.

D'Agostino, the attorney for Callahan, said the company has been responsive to Thomas' concerns.

"Callahan has done everything asked of them," D'Agostino said.

Riley, who oversees the Cherry Road project for Callahan, said he has received no other complaints about the project. He said Thomas has even been given special consideration after voicing concerns.

"We have treated him as well, or better, than anyone else," Riley said.

Thomas disagrees, saying he tried to be a good neighbor by allowing use of his property. But the continued construction and use of his property has gone further than he ever expected.

The entrance to his business' parking lot also has a hump that was not there before, Thomas said.

In almost every construction project like this one, Leazer said, problems arise between affected landowners and contractors, but most are usually handled with informal agreements about equipment storage or other factors.

"If there is a problem that can't be resolved, we can act as a go-between," Leazer said. "We try to minimize the impact on people."

Thomas conceded that, like all property owners along South Cherry Road, he was paid by the county because of the changes to property. But he said he had no idea that disruptions to his small business might cause him such distress.

The construction and the problems it has caused have prevented him from renting out the small building he owns next door. Previously, it has been a launderette and a storefront church, he said.

Much of the work near the store has been completed, but the entire widening project is expected to last at least another three months, Leazer said. Thomas hopes his business can last.

"I am an immigrant to this country," Thomas said. "I work hard, I love this country. I am a naturalized citizen.

"My family - we are Americans, but I don't feel loved about this."