An estimated 2,000 businesses line the 11-mile stretch of University Avenue between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. Most are small firms, accessible only by foot or by parking along the avenue.
Understandably, many business owners are worried about their survival while the $1 billion Central Corridor light-rail line is under construction. They're justifiably concerned that business will plummet if customers give up on navigating the construction and choose to go elsewhere. And they're legitimately anxious about losing parking spaces for good after the trains start running in 2014.
Fortunately, some help is on the way. Based on the wise understanding of the importance of preserving jobs and of the tax base the businesses provide, a new program is being offered to help keep University Avenue businesses afloat.
Recently, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell and several business owners announced a corridorwide initiative that will help small companies weather construction disruptions.
A coalition of business groups, nonprofit community developers and local governments, called the Central Corridor Business Collaborative, created a resource clearinghouse and website for businesses. Low-cost services range from marketing to financial planning to advocacy.
The effort includes a $1.5 million loan fund to help small businesses (those with revenues of $2 million or less) cover expenses if they experience hardship during construction. The zero-interest loans are repayable over five years.
The Met Council, as builder and operator of light rail, is contributing $1 million, and the collaborative is contributing $500,000. Details are still under discussion, but loan awards would likely range from $6,000 to $10,000, and some of the loans might be forgiven depending upon the business circumstances.
In addition, Met Council officials built monetary incentives into contracts with light-rail builders to handle their work in "business friendly'' ways. For example, if builders make a special effort to preserve parking in front of a business or complete work faster than scheduled, they could receive bonuses.
And recently, St. Paul's Housing and Redevelopment Authority approved forgivable loans for 24 projects to repair, spruce up and expand off-street parking lots along the avenue. About $1.3 million will be made available to help small firms do things such as repave and restripe lots and upgrade lighting.
Awards will range from $25,000 to $250,000, and about 50 businesses are expected to benefit. Parking-lot projects must begin by Oct. 15. It's expected that up to 85 percent of the on-street space now used for vehicles will disappear when line opens.
St. Paul officials are also encouraging businesses to work together to share off-street parking spaces.
Combined, the initiatives will bring much-needed assistance to keep small businesses alive during construction -- and allow them to thrive once the line is up and running.