I’m worried we’ve scheduled our Main Street Reconstruction project during a Downtown Downturn. It must be the free grant money: $3,764,000. Free, in today’s odd world where words have no meaning, and free is just another way to spend the taxpayer dollars the State recently took from us.

For the dough, we get new sidewalks, a new road, new streetlights, and new trees from Taconic Street to Cottage Street. And at least two summer seasons of at best, dislocation, and at worst, a living hell.

You’ve seen the cracks in the sidewalks, and the pear tree branches spreading high and wide on Main Street. You know how the traffic clumps up and slows to a crawl in the summertime. And you’ve probably joined others in the hunt for the most convenient, but ever more elusive, parking spot on Railroad Street.

We’ve been given a variety of reasons for reconstruction: improved traffic flow, the aging pipes beneath the street, the crumbling sidewalks, and undisciplined pear trees.

I unfortunately missed the last meeting about the plan at the Selectman’s meeting. Somewhere notice of the meeting appeared on the town website but I didn’t find it. And there were no posters in the laundromat or Fuel or Big Y, my usual haunts, or on the utility poles downtown.

It seemed to me there were more tourists walking the streets this summer and more cars relentlessly circling in search of parking spaces. More people waiting impatiently for Baba Louie’s pizza. A bit inconvenient for me but necessary for the survival of our small businesses. Will they go elsewhere if it takes them thirty minutes to move through town and thirty minutes to park?

We all know there are hidden costs when you take free money: a host of compromises you have to make with the people who administer and account for the money. This time the compromises will involve the size and cost of the trees; the size and cost of the crosswalks and their visibility; the kinds of streetlights; and a slew of extra “enhancements” like benches, bike racks, trash receptacles, planters, and seasonal lighting equipment.

Business leaders and concerned citizens have already weighed in about the fact that the project might eliminate, not increase, parking spaces and do away with the turning lanes onto Main Street from Bridge Street, and from Main onto Taconic.

Others have suggested there might be other alternatives to disrupting the town for two summers. Say no to the free money and do the job slowly over ten years.

Now let me share my greatest fear: that when Downtown Reconstruction is done, we will have deconstructed the rare and fragile and almost impossible to define “charm” of our town. Charm comes from some far away magical place, and results from an odd combination of mismatched, often unplanned events. It is quirky but always comfortable and without pretense. There’s no handbook for creating charm; and limited budgets and state and federal programs most often don’t have subsections that mandate protecting it. It’s up to charm lovers to fight to preserve it.

Now I’m sure the folks who are concerned about our underground plumbing have legitimate worries. I’m sure the town officials whose nightmares are filled with falling pear trees and multiple lawsuits deserve a good night’s sleep. And those who are paid to track down free money opportunities for the rest of us have good reasons not to let this bundle slip through our fingers.

But as other far better business folk than I have said, this project might just rebuild some retail establishments into non-existence. One merchant believes 50% of our downtown businesses are at risk if we move ahead with a two-summer season dislocation.

So I say let’s rethink and reconstruct this project.

In the meantime, there are plenty of innovative things we can do to help downtown.

How about a van system, some kind of jitney service or small bus service that runs non-stop from Barrington Brewery to Barrington Bagel – how’s that for alliteration? Alleviate some of our traffic woes. Many of our car trips are short shopping trips. It might take some retraining but I bet in time people will be willing to leave their cars behind to get on the Bagel to Beer Express.

How about a simple and aesthetically styled parking garage? If only to keep people from the dangerous dizziness that results from circling the same several blocks for extended periods?

The thing about charm is you can destroy it in a tenth of the time it takes to create it. And here in America we seem to losing charm at the same rate we’re losing Arctic ice.

Some folks say Downtown Reconstruction is a done deal. But I still think charm is worth fighting for.

The Berkshire Record, Thursday November 4, 2010. © Mickey Friedman. All rights reserved.