WILMINGTON — While most of the Port City was wrapping up holiday celebrations and preparing for the new year, one restaurant owner was dealing with a business-closing sewer emergency that cost her tens of thousands in lost revenue.
Throughout the month of December, Hayley Jensen noticed some plumbing problems in her downtown restaurant, Beer Barrio, a Mexican eatery located at the corner of Princess and Front streets.
“We thought it was in-house, you know, because sometimes drains clog up,” she said.
After multiple visits from the plumber — each time Jensen implementing a new suggestion — the blockages continued. The next time she called, the plumber ran a camera down the drain and found a much larger problem: the pipe was failing.
Jensen contacted Cape Fear Public Utility Authority on Dec. 18, and over the next few days, workers found the 100-year-old pipe’s bottom had rotted out. The line was essentially operating at partial service, with full failure imminent.
“Apparently in 2009 when a lot of the plumbing work was transitioned over from the old cast iron, our building was just somehow missed,” Jensen said.
CFPUA spokesperson Vaughn Hagerty explained the surrounding buildings switched over to new lines in 2010 as part of the City of Wilmington and CFPUA’s Front Street Streetscape Project. The project replaced two blocks of utility lines along North Front, from Market to Chestnut streets, which includes Princess.
Funded by the city’s 2014 voter-approved transportation bond, the project’s first leg was a $1.8 million expense, completed over six months in 2010.
The second part — which cost $3.5 million — is in the process of wrapping a two-block phase, ongoing over the last year along North Front between Chestnut and Nutt streets.
CFPUA also contributed $900,000 to the second portion of the project.
Once the 2010 part of the North Front Street Streetscape was completed, it was each property owner’s responsibility to hire a private plumber to install the hookup between the building’s piping and new infrastructure, according to Hagerty.
For the building at 34 N. Front Street, that didn’t happen.
“It is unclear why this building was not connected at the time the new sewer line became available,” Hagerty said.
He explained normally a customer is notified that a new line is available and provided with one or more options for the location of the tap that CFPUA would install from the sewer line to the customer’s property line.
County records show the property has been owned by John Psilos since 2002; he then transferred the property to Leon Internacional 2 LLC, managed by Constantine Psilos, in 2007. Attempts to reach John Psilos, who owns J.C.C.M Properties in Wilmington, were unanswered by press.
As CFPUA crews worked to find a solution to the failing pipe, Jensen struggled to keep Beer Barrio open the week leading up to the height of the December holidays. She said she closed the restaurant early multiple days due to plumbing malfunctions, like sink and toilet clogs.
Jensen said CFPUA and her plumber snaked the drain for free a few times during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day to help keep the restaurant open, while CFPUA generated a permanent solution. That week is one of Beer Barrio’s busiest of the year.
“[But] I was scared if we were snaking it again and again that we’re going to dislodge, you know, I don’t even know,” Jensen said.
On Dec. 29, CFPUA’s executive director, Kenneth Waldroup, notified county staff of the utility issue and CFPUA’s plan to address it. The county’s building inspections and health department would need to be involved to reinspect the building after repairs are completed.
While CFPUA could have repaired the entire line, the project would have required a shut-down of the intersection at Princess and Front streets for a month.
“The repair of this service line is impractical/unrealistic and would likely cause significant disruption to pedestrian and local traffic if attempted,” Waldroup wrote to county staff.
Instead, CFPUA decided to install an alternative line and new sewer tap running from the side of the building. This option would take a week to complete and only require blocking off a portion of the intersection.
A preliminary cost for the new tap is $20,000, which CFPUA will have to eat, according to Hagerty; CFPUA does not plan to pursue recompensation from the property owner.
Beer Barrio closed on Sunday, Jan. 1, to allow for CFPUA to begin construction on the alternative line, requiring a portion of the sidewalk and street to be uprooted. According to Hagerty, installation is complete and ready for a plumber to connect the building’s lines to the new tap. After, the sidewalk along Princess Street will be repaved.
Jensen said the health department will need to clear Beer Barrio post-repair and the earliest it could open is Monday, Jan 9.
“It really stinks to be closed, don’t get me wrong, but we’re using this opportunity,” Jensen said. “I’ve been cleaning all day with my front-of-house crew. The back-of-house crew is cleaning the kitchen. There’s a silver lining in everything.”
Jensen told Port City Daily she spent between $10,000 and $20,000 on plumbing costs before CFPUA took over and estimates a revenue loss in the tens of thousands due to the restaurant closure. She has already filed a reimbursement claim with CFPUA.
“I’ve been paying the rent and the CFPUA bills the whole time so I’m like, ‘I’m at your mercy so, please, just do right by me so that I can reopen and get back on my feet,’” Jensen said.
Property and business owners can submit reimbursement claims to CFPUA. CFPUA’s liability insurance has a $1 million limit per incident, according to Hagerty.
[Editor’s Note: CFPUA Executive Director Kenneth Waldroup’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this article. PCD regrets the error.]
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com