Sylvia Babbitt tenderly runs her fingers along the curves of a four-poster dark mesquite bed. "If I build something," she says, "I want to make sure it lasts forever."
Babbitt owns Country Casa, a custom furniture store at Higley and Williams Field roads in Gilbert. Not one piece of furniture leaves the store until Babbitt has put her hands all over it. One bump, one imperfection, and the bed goes back to the workshop.
For more than a decade, Babbitt has made her customers’ dreams come true. In a perfect world, they’d find her shop, pull in and park without a problem. But for the past four years, Babbitt has put up with construction crews digging up the street in front of her store. Sometimes it’s the utility company. Other times it’s Gilbert widening the streets.
"I don’t think I’m against progress or construction," she says. "I’m against poor planning. Why can’t they get it all together? Why can’t they do the electric, the water, the cable and the phone lines at the same time?"
When Babbitt set up shop 12 years ago, she could see horses galloping in a field from her store window. The intersection was governed by stop signs and country courtesy. Pickup trucks, horses and cyclists traveled these two-lane country roads. Now she sees bumper-to-bumper traffic in the mornings and late afternoons. The field where horses once roamed is empty and walled off. At any given time there’s road construction going on somewhere in the town’s 76 square miles.
Road crews are working to widen major arteries leading to the Santan Freeway stretch of Loop 202 between Greenfield and Higley roads, which is tentatively scheduled to open in the spring or summer of 2006. Until the work is completed, residents and businesses have to put up with bumper-to-bumper traffic, dust and backhoes blocking the road. Babbitt and other small business owners in the Santan corridor are trying to survive the construction that town officials say will make their lives easier and bring business back to their small corner of the world.
"If I can hold on through the construction and be here when everything is pretty and done, it’ll be great," says Babbitt. "That’s my hope."
She grabs a ruler poking out beneath a stack of sketches. With pencil-smudged fingers, she holds the ruler in place and adds the finishing touches to a chair. As she continues to sketch, her cell phone rings. She looks at the caller ID number and smiles.
"It’s my Carlitos." She flips open the phone to speak with her
foreman. "¿Dónde estás?"
Behind the scenes, business is usually conducted in Spanish. Her carpenters, who hand-carve the furniture she designs, are mostly from Mexico.
Babbitt came into the furniture business via Mexico, where she met and married her husband, Samuel. He owned a cattle ranch, and she wanted to be a teacher. The Babbitts lived the expatriate life until their six children were ready to start school. They settled in Gilbert 23 years ago.
"We had a friend who had property out here," says Babbitt. "I wanted my kids out of the city. They had been raised in a Huckleberry Finn lifestyle and needed more space."
She had retired from her job as a professor of linguistics at Arizona State University (she speaks English, French, Spanish, Latin and Greek) when she got into the furniture business in June 1992. She was 62 and needed an additional source of income to cover her husband’s medical bills. And a life of leisure was driving her crazy.
"Can you imagine me sitting around doing nothing?" she asks.
Babbitt discovered an affinity for furniture in Mexico. She loved the styles, the materials and the craftsmanship. In the beginning she imported furniture from Mexico, but the quality was lacking. So Babbitt decided to make her own furniture and taught herself cabinetmaking. She built a few pieces and hired a carpenter, and Country Casa slowly became a tourist destination.
"I did booming business before (the Arizona Department of Transportation and Gilbert) helped us out so much," Babbitt says.
"It’s tough for us because we know there is all this work that has to be done and it has to be done in a finite amount of time," says Gilbert spokesman Greg Svelund. "There is no easy way to get the work done and not have an impact on people."
Town officials believe that once the freeway is completed, business owners in the corridor, which will be home to the state’s largest auto mall, the Santan Motorplex, and two regional shopping centers, Westcor’s SanTan Village and Woodbine Southwest Corp.’s Main Street Commons, will be rewarded for their patience.
"All of the businesses along that commercial corridor are going to benefit greatly from the freeway, and they already have," says Svelund. "That’s true of businesses and homes. There’s an incredible appreciation (in value) along that area. Our economic future is tied to how well that corridor does."
But some areas have had it a lot rougher than others. What Babbitt and her neighbors have gone through is the Book of Job, thoroughly updated for modern, south East Valley life.
"They nearly put me out of business," says Babbitt. "At first I was really nice, but now I’ve turned into a first-class you-know-what."
In the beginning, Babbitt kept her cool. Four years ago, construction workers tore up the street in front of her store so they could widen Higley Road and install a sewer system for the Chaparral Estates subdivision, which is south of Babbitt’s store. That was a "year from hell."
"The sewer situation was absolutely horrendous," says Babbitt. "That’s when they broke the gas main and evacuated us out for a few days."
But when construction workers began parking their backhoes and trucks in front of her store and blocking access to customers, the former teacher confronted one of the construction workers.
"I said, ‘Please, this is a business. You’re messing us up already. I’ve got to pay my employees. You’re threatening their livelihood,’ " says Babbitt. "The first time they looked at me like I lost it."
Then Babbitt got a ticket for turning into the parking lot in front of her own store. She went to court and won, but she says the experience left "a real bad taste in my mouth."
Once there was a hole in front of her store for five months. Then a delivery truck was turned back because the driver couldn’t turn left into Babbitt’s parking lot. Getting the truck to return cost Babbitt $3,500.
"I don’t blame the shipping company," says Babbitt. "They run on a schedule. But it’s a hit. (Transportation officials) don’t make anything easy."
Babbitt says her business began to slide soon after the construction began. Her customers, whom Babbitt describes as the type to turn around and go home for a martini rather than sit in traffic, were no longer willing to drive out to Gilbert to buy furniture.
Gilbert officials have tried to lessen the burden on businesses by restricting construction to only one side of the road or providing "business access" signs. Babbitt’s isn’t the only business affected by the roadwork. There’s a Mexican grill, a Western apparel shop and other specialty stores struggling to stay open.
"We do everything we can not to close the road," says Svelund.
But when Babbitt asked for a "business access" sign, her request was denied.
"They said my parking lot wasn’t paved, so I couldn’t have one," says Babbitt.
The absurdity of Babbitt’s situation isn’t lost on town officials.
"Yeah, they’ve had it rough," says Svelund, but "there’s definitely a light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t think business owners like to hear that. I can only urge them to be patient for a little while longer."
Babbitt gives the impression that she’s as hard and tough as the mesquite she works with. When the construction became a problem, Babbitt adapted. She began doing consultations with clients in their homes and set up a Web site. She opened a Country Casa location in Scottsdale. But family issues — her husband has a heart condition — made the move impractical.
"I just can’t be far from him," says Babbitt.
And the construction continues. Higley Road will be expanded to six lanes in May, and the utility companies always have more work to do. Gilbert officials never like to say it’s the last project. Roads have to be maintained and expanded as the community grows.
So until the Santan Freeway opens between Higley and Greenfield roads sometime next year, Babbitt has some tough decisions to make. Gas prices are rising, people aren’t spending money on furniture and there’s more construction on the horizon. Babbitt has laid off one of her workers to keep costs down.
"Country Casa isn’t going anywhere," she says. "It’s been difficult, but we’re ingenious. My quality of work has to be so good, someone would drive over a pile of dirt to get here."