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Barriers were in place on the road in front of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul.

Jim Mone, Associated Press

Gridlock: Gut punch to businesses

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG
  • Star Tribune
  • July 11, 2011 - 8:31 AM

Pat and Mike's Lobby Shoppe in downtown St. Paul's skyway typically operates 10 hours a day, but lately it's been shuttering its location in the Golden Rule Building for lack of customers.

"The Lobby Shoppe is open from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday during the government shutdown," reads a handwritten note taped to a storefront gate. "We greatly appreciate your patronage during this difficult time. Thank you!"

State workers and their much-sought-after dollars have disappeared from St. Paul since the shutdown began, sending businesses scrambling to survive. They are cutting hours and staff and hoping the stalemate resolves itself before sharp declines in sales send them nosediving toward oblivion.

"I don't know even if we're going to make it for rent next month," said Alinda Saurez, of Pickerman's Soup and Sandwiches in the Securian Building skyway.

Many lunch spots downtown are being hit especially hard. They've relied heavily on the state offices just steps away, including the departments of Public Safety, Health, Employment and Economic Development, and a Driver and Vehicles Services office.

Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, estimates the shutdown has taken about 3,000 state workers away from downtown. Businesses can probably endure for a week or two, but anything longer is concerning, he said.

"It's really important to remember that we have a very fragile economic recovery," Kramer said. "If you're a small retail operation ... people would be amazed how thin the margins are. If your business goes down 30 percent, you're going to have to make some significant adjustments on the spot."

Business owners and managers said they started making those painful adjustments in anticipation of the shutdown, and continue to make cuts as it drags on. Pickerman's let go one employee and the remaining three saw their hours cut from five to four days a week. Saurez said sales have declined 30 percent since the shutdown began, enough to make the roughly $3,000 monthly rent burdensome.

Next door at Maison Darras, one employee was asked to take a week off unpaid and a second worker's hours were cut from about 34 to 30 a week. Wife and husband team Dee and Xavier Darras shoulder much of the remaining work, since they have only those two employees on their payroll.

"My husband and I have trouble sleeping," said Dee Darras. "It's to the point where you don't know what to expect. There's a concern that it'll just be the two of us running the place.

"It's just ridiculous. It's time [for lawmakers] to compromise."

Despite the sharp decline in business, restaurants face the difficult task of still supplying everything on their menus. Three workers were laid off at D. Brian's in the Town Square building and sales fell 30 percent, but the hefty menu is fully stocked.

"If customers see we're cutting back things, they'll go find a new place," said Steve Olson, owner of the sprawling restaurant that wraps around a corner of the Town Square food court. "[The shutdown] does affect a lot more than the government employees. It affects all of us."

On a recent afternoon, skyway foot traffic was noticeably slim and food court tables were emptier than usual. The absence of state workers was evident at the farmers market on the 7th Place Mall.

Sisters Melvina and Melysia Cha have worked the downtown St. Paul market for several years, helping their mother sell bright bouquets of sunflowers and lilies, among other flowers. But a recent Thursday market was shockingly slow. As the 1:30 p.m. wrap time approached, they'd sold only six buckets of flowers when they typically sell all of them -- about 150 bouquets total. The sisters waited as 15 buckets containing three to four bouquets each dotted the pavement before them.

Usually "there are so many people here you can't see the other side" of the mall, Melysia said. "Today I could make eye contact with the other vendors."

The ripple effect extends beyond downtown St. Paul. Mai Nguyen, co-owner of the Vietnamese restaurant Mai Village on University Avenue just blocks from the Capitol and other state offices, is frustrated by the sudden drop in customers. More than half of the customers who come to the restaurant are state workers, Nguyen estimated. Now 70 to 80 lunch customers are turning up each day compared to 150 to 200 before the shutdown. Two servers had their hours cut.

"Two weeks is too long. You are frustrated. You are worried. You feel sad and empty because you're used to seeing the crowd going in and out," Nguyen said.

Two weeks of lost profits would be enough to pay for "a lot of things," she said, including insurance. With the slow economic recovery and expected summer doldrums, Nguyen feels especially vulnerable now. She snatched her 21-year-old business from the brink of foreclosure in May 2010 and is worried that if the shutdown continues she could lose it for good this year.

"Who will give you the second chance?" she asked, seated on a pink couch in the restaurant's foyer. "Everybody have dreams, right? This is our dreams."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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