Some business owners still lukewarm to light rail as opening draws near

Plenty of people are excited about the opening of the Green Line, but the Park Bugle found several business owners around the Raymond Station taking a decidedly wait-and-see attitude.

“I don’t honestly know if I’ll benefit from light rail, because this is such a niche business,” said Bruce Delles, owner of Twin Cities Reptiles, 2363 University Ave. W.

Also skeptical is Dana Rose, owner of Sharrett’s Liquors, 2389 University Avenue W. “We’re a driving destination and I don’t think it’ll help us, but we’ll see,” he said.

Over at Roller Revolution, 2418 University Avenue W., owner Gina Flak is more optimistic. She sells equipment, supplies and apparel to roller derby enthusiasts and has a lot of customers who go to school or work on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus.

“And there are a lot of roller derby people who don’t own cars; they bike everywhere, so they may use it, too,” she said. Flak said light-rail construction on her block was mostly completed by the time she moved in a little more than two years ago.

Although Delles has his own off-street parking, he said customers had a hard time getting to his store. And Rose, who felt the elimination of on-street parking on University keenly, says his business was down 16 percent at the peak of construction.

“It’s slowly coming back, but I don’t know if it’ll ever be what it once was,” he said.

About 200 businesses along the light-rail line received forgivable loans of up to $20,000 from a Metropolitan Council/City of St. Paul program to help them through the construction period.

“The businesses that have survived, and the Met Council admits that we’ve lost 90 to 100 that they know of, did so because of strong management principles, not because of anything that anybody did for them,” said Jack McCann, president of the University Avenue Betterment Association.

McCann has been an ongoing critic of the Metropolitan Council’s management of the project. He is a partner in Update Company, which owns eight buildings in the Raymond and University area. He was asked if landlords now will seek higher rents because of the perceived value of being near the Green Line.

“In our case, we’ll be able to raise our rates slightly, but it will take a long time to recoup the $300,000 to $500,000 in business that we lost during construction,” he said. In the eyes of some, progress has come at a price.

“Overall, I don’t think light rail has been good for University Avenue, because a lot of retail has gone away,” Delles said. “Maybe if some drivers become riders, they might have a chance to look around and see shops and restaurants they weren’t aware of and want to check out.”

McCann continues to advocate a “pocket parking concept,” the creation of small lots of perhaps 20 spaces each per block. “If University Avenue is to retain a retail presence, we need to bring back parking somehow,” he said.

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