Lake Co. highway construction shuttering businesses



LEESBURG, Fla. - The state's plan to reduce traffic tie-ups through a part of Leesburg may be the reason dozens of Lake County workers lost their jobs.

Two restaurants in Lake County along U.S. Highway 441 have closed, one this week.

Former customers and employees of a now-closed Bob Evans, like employee Timothy Wilcox, said the drivers don't have easy access to businesses along the highway.

They said the restaurant closed because of changes to 441.

"I don't know why they did that. But that highway is killing a lot of businesses over here," said Wilcox.

The U.S. 27/441 interchange project began in October 2011 to ease congestion. The Florida Department of Transportation re-routed the northbound lanes, which no longer pass directly in front of Bob Evans and three other restaurants along the highway.

Drivers have to pass and double back if they want to eat.

City officials said it was a state project.

"We certainly hope that there wouldn't be an impact from the traffic on local businesses," said Robert Sargent with the city of Leesburg.

FDOT said "every effort is made to increase safety, mobility, and preserve commercial activity."

But Taco Bell closed down as well, and built a new restaurant south of the new interchange.

"It's fine and it's nice for getting onto 27. But it's no good (for) the businesses on this side of the street as far as I'm concerned, as a person who eats over here," said restaurant patron Ed Wendling.

It's far worse for people who used to work in the area.

"A lot of people were devastated when they heard the news. There were people that were here like 26 years and up," Wilcox said.

Representatives in the corporate offices of Bob Evans and Taco Bell said they're researching why they closed the restaurants and if the highway changes were a factor.