St. Anthony: Hoping to ride out light-rail construction

The project has taken a big bite out of Carla Harris' Quiznos franchise near the U of M.

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Carla Harris, a Quiznos franchisee for less than a year, is struggling with revenue running a third under projections, with Central Corridor light-rail construction out her front door on Washington Avenue.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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In the long run, the Central Corridor project that will link downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul is supposed to be good for business.

In the short run, it's been a rough road for hundreds of small businesses that front the $957 million construction project.

And for fledgling entrepreneur Carla Harris, who opened a Quiznos sandwich shop last fall on the east edge of the University of Minnesota just in time for heavy construction outside her front door, it could be the end of the road.

Area merchants are grumbling since Washington Avenue was basically closed for construction this year between Oak Street and Huron Blvd.

"We sure didn't expect to get rich in the first year, but it's been tough," said Harris, who said revenue is running a third under projections at the shop, for which she paid $12,500 in franchise rights. "We have 10 [part-time] employees and I'm working long days ... and we just have to find a way to let people know that we're here."

Harris can't blame everything on the light-rail project. Denver-based Quiznos recently completed a financial restructuring and just hired a new Twin Cities regional manager.

And Harris hasn't been in business long enough to qualify for a $20,000 forgivable-loan program that's targeted at small businesses along the corridor and is designed to offer a cash cushion during the disruption.

She admits she underestimated how much work was involved in starting a new business and how disruptive it can be when the main drag is torn up for months. But the University of Minnesota graduate still likes the business and has a huge emotional investment in this deal.

"Carla has so much into her business and so much to lose, and we're trying to do everything we can to help her," said Doug Shellum, the Stadium Village property manager who said he's working with the mall owner on unspecified rent concessions. "There's student housing going up for several hundred people and nearby transit stops going in. It's getting through this year that will be tough."

Harris quit a customer service job a few years ago after her 5-year-old son, Abuwi Shabazz Jr., was killed in a school bus accident. Abuwi was a dynamic, engaging kid. Harris, who was pregnant at the time with her daughter, took time off and started planning her own business. She chose a healthy foods franchise in a neighborhood of young people. She invested some of the proceeds from an insurance settlement, confident that her son would have enjoyed the business and location.

Now construction has made her shop all but invisible from the street. Flags for retailers along Washington Avenue came down for construction. Harris tried fliers in the neighborhood and other low-cost marketing.

"I'm running negative cash flow," Harris said. "But I'm still hopeful.''

Iric Nathanson, a veteran business troubleshooter, works for the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers and has been retained to assist small businesses on the Minneapolis LRT stretch. He's pushed for detour signs that include the names of affected businesses, so far to no avail.

"Unless Carla can find a way to bring new customers into her store, she is facing the prospect of closing her business," Nathanson said.

The Metropolitan Council, administrator of the local and federally funded LRT project points to a few hundred million worth of residential and commercial developments planned and underway, as well as several studies, that indicate the public investment and construction will pay off over time along the route.

But meanwhile, business is crummy amid the construction wars waged in hopes of a better tomorrow.

"We certainly feel the LRT route down University Avenue will be great ... when it is finished,'' said Chris Eilers, CEO of Dunn Bros, which operates a store a mile east of the university. "But the construction has had a hugely negative impact on our business."

The bulk of the construction work in front of his store is over, Eilers said. But "now we are fearful that a significant portion of our old customers will avoid the area until completion in 2014.''

The construction near Harris' store in Stadium Village should conclude this fall.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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