Joel Tracy has worked at or owned Stoltz Cleaners at Snelling and Grand Avenues in St. Paul for 35 years. Each of his six kids has worked there through high school, and two still do. His wife is the seamstress.
Tracy estimates he puts in about 90 hours a week at the cleaners to make sure it stays afloat.
“A dry cleaning business works on very small profit margins,” he said. “A loss of 1 or 2 percent could shut me down.”
Tracy thinks that could happen if Metro Transit and the Metropolitan Council proceed to block his driveway on the Snelling side by extending the sidewalk and putting in a rapid-transit bus stop.
He said he was told that the agencies did a tour of the area and that their first choice was to build the transit stop across Grand, in front of a bake shop and Common Good Books, owned by Minnesota writer and radio personality Garrison Keillor.
Here’s where Tracy’s story becomes a bit, well, woebegone.
Turns out the corner is owned by Macalester College. Tracy was told by the Met Council that the private, liberal-arts college didn’t want the bus stop on its block because it would take up a few parking places in front of the businesses.
Tracy met with a transit representative in May to express his concerns. “They said nothing had been decided; don’t worry about a thing.”
They pointed out that he has a circular drive on the Grand side of his business that seems to work just fine, but Tracy thinks the bus line will make entry difficult and perhaps dangerous.
Since then there apparently have been meetings and dealings between other businesses, but Tracy was too busy working and didn’t hear anything about them — until a few days ago, when he got a letter saying his driveway would be taken for the bus lane.
“I was completely in the dark until I got that letter,” Tracy said. “The other side had the resources, and somebody at Macalester talked to somebody.”
He added, “They said, ‘Macalester doesn’t want it there, so we took it off the table.’ Well, I don’t want it here, either, so will they take that location off the table?”
The answer is no. On Tuesday, transit and council representatives told him they had the authority to take the driveway whether he liked it or not. By Wednesday, after Tracy started getting his customers to protest and talked to the news media, there was some mumbling about taking only half his driveway, if possible.
Jon Commers, the Met Council member who represents that area, said that he had heard from several of Tracy’s concerned customers and that he now hopes to have a solution that satisfies him, perhaps leaving part of the driveway.
“Joel has got a great record at that business,” Commers said. “He’s got a really loyal base, and he’s been an institution on Grand Avenue.”
Commers said the stop will more resemble a light-rail stop, with a raised sidewalk to allow quick access along the 10-mile line from Roseville. He denied that transit or the council bent over backward for Macalester. But because Tracy’s location was one of six initial choices, “I entirely understand Joel’s sense that the northeast corner was the first pick.”
Tracy said he knows it’s an uphill battle against a government agency and a larger neighbor. “I’m a normal person. I’m not an educated guy,” he said. “But I did a study — in other words I hired a kid to sit here for an afternoon and count cars.”
Tracy pulled out a colorful, official-looking pie chart that showed traffic tendencies. It showed that 36 percent of his business comes off Snelling. “I don’t see how closing that entrance will help my business,” Tracy said.
Did I mention yet that part of that business for 15 years has been pressing U.S. flags for veterans and soldiers who have died?
“These guys risked their lives for their country; it’s the least I could do,” Tracy said. “A few times I realized I was pressing it for some kid who just died in Afghanistan. That’s tough.”
In the scope of issues facing the naked city, Tracy’s driveway may not seem like much. But he said he had no choice but to use his pie chart and petition to fight.
“I’ve been a good neighbor for a long time,” he said. “My family has spent our lives here.”
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