My Dung Nguyen looked over a construction site with her grandson Quinn Gould. She and her husband own Mai Village, a popular Vietnamese restaurant.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Signs try to guide customers around the work at University and Western avenues.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Ne Dao, owner of the Ha Tien grocery store at 353 W. University Av., said she has seen a significant drop in customers since the Central Corridor light-rail line construction started near her store.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Big worries in St. Paul's Little Mekong

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH
  • Star Tribune
  • June 7, 2012 - 1:42 PM

Ne Dao is worried. Business at her normally bustling grocery store has slowed the past two weeks, and she fears it will only get worse once the massive light-rail transit construction project lands on her doorstep.

Many of the Asian businesses located along the five-block stretch of University Avenue recently dubbed the Little Mekong business district say they're losing customers and sales. Business owners blame the road construction that is making way for the Central Corridor light-rail line connecting downtown Minneapolis with downtown St. Paul.

The road work on their stretch started in March and is expected to finish in late October. At University and Western avenues, the owner of Mai Village restaurant says she's had to lay off the hostess and cut back from 10 servers to five because of the drop in business.

This year, Mother's Day, typically her busiest day of the year, was a dead zone.

"I don't know how long we will survive," said My Dung Nguyen, who along with her husband, Ngoan Dang, have owned Mai Village on University Avenue for more than 20 years.

She said she just applied for a $20,000 loan through the City of St. Paul to mitigate the impact the construction is having on her business.

The sound of Bobcats and work crews, coupled with the dust they're kicking up, have left her rose-filled haven of a patio empty because customers don't want to sit out there in the middle of a construction zone.

"My customers, some of them tell it to me straight. They say, 'I love your family. I love your food. But I'm sorry, I won't come back until the light rail is done,'" Nguyen said.

Construction of the Central Corridor light-rail line is now more than halfway done. Service is scheduled to begin in 2014.

Total cost of the project is $957 million, according to the Metropolitan Council.

In response to reports that the Little Mekong businesses are hurting, Met Council officials say they're working hard to finish the project on schedule and in the meantime to minimize the disruption.

"Change is hard for many people. We've heard this from businesses elsewhere on the corridor and in other areas," said Laura Baenen, a spokeswoman for the Central Corridor Light Rail Project. "The construction schedule was set out in this way to give businesses on eastern University more time to prepare. They're smaller businesses there."

Baenen noted that more businesses have opened on the entire corridor in the past year than have closed. From March 2011 to March 2012, 64 businesses opened on the corridor -- including Washington Avenue, University Avenue, and Cedar and 4th Streets in downtown St. Paul -- while 59 closed.

At the same time, the Metropolitan Council has stepped up efforts to promote the businesses along the corridor route, Baenen said. The project website includes information about the various small businesses along the corridor. "We've been featuring more pictures of businesses to try to remind people that they're open and remind people to patronize them," she said.

In addition, there's a $4 million business-loan mitigation program for eligible small businesses. The loan amount is $20,000 per business, but many business owners say that is not enough to cover the losses they're incurring, said Va-Megn Thoj, executive director of the Asian Economic Development Association.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit organization with offices on University Avenue officially launched the Little Mekong Asian Business & Culture District as a way to brand the area that so many Asian-owned businesses call home.

There are about 80 Asian-owned businesses in the district, which is bordered by Galtier Street on the east and by Mackubin Street on the west.

The Asian restaurants are the ones that have been hardest hit, Thoj said. "Just in Little Mekong area, most of the restaurants are seeing a 25 to 50 percent loss. We have about 12 eating establishments. They all drop in customers during lunch and dinner."

Back at Mai Village, Nguyen says the vision that the Metropolitan Council has of light-rail bringing prosperity to Little Mekong is still a long way from happening.

In the meantime, she says she and the other longtime owners are just trying to hold on to see that day.

"We put our heart, our time, our everything in here," she said. "We would like to see it a success if the light-rail is done. But that is a big question."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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