Vendors at the Charleston Farmers Market in Marion Square say they've been advised by a city official to wear earplugs and communicate with customers using dry-erase boards as construction crews begin the noisy process of driving pilings at a nearby hotel construction site this Saturday.
One vendor that could be directly impacted by the noise is Joseph Fields Farm, whose vegetable booth location is directly next to the construction site.
"I just don't think that's the way to handle business. That's my personal opinion," says Helen Fields, the wife of the farm's owner. "I think that on Saturday for the hours of the Farmers Market, I think that they need to discontinue the piling."
The Farmers Market, which is managed by the city's Office of Cultural Affairs, takes place on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. For the next four Saturdays starting July 11, construction crews will drive pilings for Bennett Hospitality's new eight-story luxury hotel at a site just north of Marion Square from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., according to Cultural Affairs.
Several Farmers Market vendors say they first heard about the pile driving last Friday, when they received an email from Cultural Affairs about the issue. Cultural Affairs Director Scott Watson says the email came from Harrison Chapman, manager of the Farmers Market, in his weekly update that he sends to vendors.
"Part of Harrison's weekly newsletter email to the vendors was letting them know that he would have earplugs available on hand and that one of the comments from a construction manager was that you may want to bring a dry-erase board to write down the total of your sale ... It was more just for something that's critical to the transaction," Watson says.
Pile driving is one of the loudest forms of construction noise, sometimes measured at decibel levels higher than that of a Boeing passenger jet taking off. Watson says sound level readings from the perimeter of the hotel site have been measured at 90 decibels during weekday pile driving — that is, slightly louder than a freight train at a distance of 15 meters.
"It's not that the pile driving continues relentlessly," Watson says. "They set one pile an hour, basically, and the actual time that it's being driven could be as little as 15 or 20 minutes. It depends on the subterranean situation. But with that said, out of all of the concerns, right now we are waiting to see if there's any more flexibility in the schedule."
Watson says city officials have been in conversations with Bennett Hospitality for months about the construction project. He says Bennett has already made some accommodations with its construction schedule, including not pile-driving during Sunday church services and not pile-driving during load-in and load-out times for Farmers Market vendors. But he says that since Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. visited the Farmers Market last Saturday and heard some vendors' concerns, he and other city officials have been looking for solutions.
"The mayor is in contact with Bennett Hospitality, city staff is in contact with the construction company, and we have made requests to see what additional accommodations can be made," Watson says. "It's an evolving situation."
Meanwhile, some Farmers Market vendors are worried that the noise from the construction site will put a damper on their sales. Restaurateur Karalee Nielsen, whose husband Chris Fallert owns the Yardbirds Fried Chicken booth at the Farmers Market, says vendors were previously told that pile driving would not happen on weekends. She also says many vendors depend on the Farmers Market to make a living.
"A lot of people, that is their livelihood. For some people it's on the side, but having a bad day or having it canceled for the wrong reasons, it really impacts some people," Nielsen says. "So it just seems like, in the grand scheme of things, if it's adding three weekdays to the project because they can't do it on Saturdays, then for folks of that scale, it's not going to hurt them as much as it's going to hurt us."
Brian Bertolini, owner of Rio Bertolini's Pasta, laughs when he talks about the suggestion of communicating with dry-erase boards. But he says the impact of the construction noise could be serious.
"I imagine this weekend might not be the worst because [customers] are going to show up unknowingly, and then we'll see what happens," Bertolini says. "But it can't be good. It's kind of silly that they can't postpone it for a few hours."
Bennett Hospitality owner Michael Bennett has not responded to requests for comment. A Bennett employee who answered the phone Tuesday said, "It's being looked into at the moment, and there's a meeting this afternoon."
Cheri "Blueberry Cheri" Ward, co-owner of Blue Pearl Farms, says she hopes the city can work out a compromise with Bennett Hospitality. Her farm's rabbiteye blueberries are coming in strong this month, and she doesn't want to miss out on any sales.
"It's such a tremendous resource for everybody involved, and we'd really like to see everybody come together and say, 'OK, let's solve this in whatever creative way we can,'" Ward says.