On the Green Line, many small businesses unsure of their future

Some businesses along University Av. left; many that remain are unsure of the future.

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Ron Whyte whooped as he dealt with a long line of customers at Big Daddy’s Barbeque, which survived light-rail construction and expanded.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Ron Whyte figured his tiny barbecue shop in St. Paul could weather the dust, noise, traffic and parking disarray associated with the construction of the billion-dollar Green Line, the light-rail service that will link the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

But “one day I looked up and they put a Port-A-Potty right at my front door,” said the still-incredulous co-owner of Big Daddy’s Old Fashioned Barbeque. “What kind of advertising is that for a restaurant?”

The public transit line will open to great fanfare Saturday, but many of the small-business owners along the 11-mile stretch of track have doubts about the project’s promise. Construction of the rail line, which began in late 2010, was toughest on the smallest businesses, some of which were fledgling to begin with. More than 100 businesses either closed or moved out of the Central Corridor between February 2011 and December 2013.

“When you lose 30 to 40 percent of your revenue, that’s pretty devastating,” said Isabel Chanslor, director of the Neighborhood Development Center, a community-based economic development group.

Yet there’s hope that the brightly painted trains — along with new streets, sidewalks and lighting along University Avenue — will bolster an area of the Twin Cities that, in some spots, has been slow to realize the spoils of the economic recovery.

“I feel like people were afraid there would be carnage, all vacant storefronts, but I don’t think that’s happened,” said Nancy Homans, policy director for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. “Generally, people feel as though we’ve gotten through it in a pretty good position.”

Officials from the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning agency that built the Green Line, say the massive project already has attracted $2.5 billion in new construction, ranging from the $243 million renovation of the Union Depot terminal in St. Paul’s Lowertown to the $45 million expansion of the Episcopal Homes senior housing complex in the Midway ­neighborhood.

According to a Met Council tally, 128 new businesses opened along the Green Line between February 2011 and December 2013, and 27 stayed in the area but relocated.

Now the remaining firms are poised to reap the benefits of modern transit, officials say.

Chanslor said business traffic started to come back last summer and has been increasing ever since. “And the trains aren’t running yet,” she said. “The job of these businesses now is to persuade the passengers to get off the trains when they go by.”

Yet some of the outfits along the line are skeptical that it will bring in new customers. For instance, the closest light-rail stop to the Russian Tea House is at Fairview Avenue, a good two blocks from the 36-year-old St. Paul institution. “I don’t believe a lot of people will walk two blocks in the snow to get to us,” said co-owner Linda Alenov. Before rail-related construction, the restaurant was open four days — but that was soon cut to two days a week as diners withered, and now, only one day for the summer.

Still, she noted recently as her husband, Nikolai, dished up piroshki and pelmeni, “I really hope it works out.”

Lead time was long

Efforts to prepare businesses for the impact of light-rail construction resembled a political campaign, with community meetings, face-to-face discussions, brochures, newsletters and regular updates to let business owners know where and when heavy work would occur.

“We tried to start preparing people as early as 2007. We hired coordinators who spoke different languages. We hired people from the community. We went to fairs and festivals,” said Laura Baenen, communications manager for the Central Corridor project. “We couldn’t just send out an e-mail blast. We used old-fashioned shoe leather.”

And money.

With the Met Council in the lead, nearly $16 million was spent in the form of foregiveable loans, grants and other forms of financial assistance to minimize the impact of the construction.

The mostly small businesses along the corridor received help with advertising and marketing. “Open for business” signage was provided. Funds were available for businesses to spruce up their exteriors to improve curb appeal. Money also was on hand to improve off-street parking and alley access.

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