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.”
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.
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.”