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

An 83-page glossy Green Line Visitors Guide was produced for print and the Internet (onthegreenline.com) containing coupons, maps and descriptions of places “to shop, eat and play” along the 11-mile stretch. Advertisements were placed on sides of Metro Transit buses and on billboards touting different businesses along University Avenue. Even small amounts of TV and radio time were purchased to promote the corridor.

“People were really, really concerned” about the potential impact of construction on their businesses,” said Kari Canfield, executive director of the 350-member Midway Chamber of Commerce. “We got in a grass-roots marketing plan early on.”

The chamber used social media to promote local businesses and also distributed free coupon books to drive traffic to the area.

“Some moved out, some didn’t make it,” Canfield said. “But some moved in, as well.”

Canfield said Cub Foods used the slowdown in business during construction to remodel its Midway store, while a popular Culver’s burger restaurant opened along the corridor.

“Now the big challenge is making sure people return to their old traffic patterns,” she said.

Homans, the policy director for the St. Paul mayor, said the light rail also gives the city a chance to introduce distinctive neighborhoods, such as Historic Rondo and Little Mekong, to the rest of the Twin Cities. The next step involves creating market awareness of these largely unknown enclaves to the entire region, she noted.

The Neighborhood Development Center earmarked $1.7 million from its budget for services, including oversight of business expansion projects, accounting and bookkeeping assistance, design for business signs, exterior storefront improvements and micro-grants to cover printing costs for marketing materials.

Help, but not enough

Several businesses said they appreciated the various grant programs, but the funds weren’t nearly enough to make them whole.

The $20,000 that Midway Pro Bowl received “was gone in about eight days,” said Al Loth, owner of a bowling alley that has been a neighborhood gathering spot for 54 years. Loth said he couldn’t estimate the losses his business experienced, but traced the bulk of them to the “poorly planned” access to the shopping center at the intersection of University and Snelling avenues.

“You couldn’t get in, you couldn’t get out,” he said. “One night I got in my car and I couldn’t get home because they closed all the exits. I couldn’t get out.”

And he’s not terribly optimistic that the new rail line will bolster his bottom line, either. “Bowlers are not going to carry their bowling balls on trains,” he said.

Faced with a yearslong construction project, inevitable parking woes and the replacement of a 1850s-era water line outside her front door, gourmet chocolatier Mary Leonard decided to simply leave her University Avenue space. In 2010, she moved her business, Chocolat Celeste, 1½ blocks north of University Avenue on Transfer Road. While the new space is just fine, and “many people are starting to come back,” the painful process resulted in a “significant loss of revenue.”

For 88 Oriental, an Asian grocery on University Avenue, “Everything was torn up, traffic was rerouted, sometimes our customers got lost just trying to get here,” said owner Peter Ratsamy. “Now it looks good, but I don’t know if [light rail] will help my business in the near future.”

But not every business contracted during the Green Line’s construction.

Big Daddy’s moved from a seven-seat cubbyhole to a bigger space next door, thanks in part to Neighborhood Development Center assistance. On a recent Friday, the restaurant’s signature “Flintstone” beef ribs were in high demand, as Whyte reflected on his business’ journey.

Business “really, really went down when the work began, but we survived,” he said. “Big picture? I’m not sure how it will work out. But I’m hoping it will.”

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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.

  • Vanh Ratsamy, second from right, and her son Chris helped customers at 88 Oriental, a grocery store on University Avenue.

  • Ma Nway, originally from Myanmar, now St. Paul, shopped for frozen seafood at 88 Oriental.

  • Big Daddy’s Barbeque, a long-standing business in St. Paul, was able to survive light-rail construction and expand next door.

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