Business down amid construction


It doesn’t even seem like summertime in Stadium Village to Nancy Rose Pribyl.

Once lined with planters and parking meters, Washington Avenue Southeast is now filled with dirt and barricaded by steel fences. Sitting on the patio with a beer at Sally’s Saloon and Eatery — once a summertime custom — isn’t the same for Pribyl.

With light-rail construction on the Central Corridor in full swing, Pribyl said the two-block walk through a construction zone and fenced-off view of the exposed earth are enough to deter even the most loyal Stadium Village business supporter.

“The area just isn’t as appealing with all of the construction,” Pribyl, president of the Stadium Village Commercial Association and rental manager at Dinnaken House, said. “As a consequence, it’s very difficult for the businesses.”

Light-rail work along much of Washington and University avenues has business owners looking for ways to attract customers, despite the heavy-duty construction going on just outside their front doors.

Stadium Village Dairy Queen owner Christopher Ferguson, who is also the neighborhood’s business representative in light-rail discussions, said construction has caused a significant drop in traffic in the area, particularly at night.

He estimated that all Stadium Village businesses have suffered a loss of 20 to 30 percent of revenue since construction started in April compared to last year. Profits at Dairy Queen have dropped 30 percent from this time last year, Ferguson said, though he added that the end of the semester, weather and a struggling economy could share the blame.

For businesses down University Avenue, numbers are even more dismal.

Isabel Broyld the project manager for U7, a nonprofit that provides one-on-one technical support to businesses along the Central Corridor, said some of the businesses she has worked with have experienced profit losses of 50 percent or more.

The blow to business in Stadium Village has not been as dramatic as Ferguson had feared, thanks to new marketing strategies, he said. The Dairy Queen is one of many businesses involved in the Discover Central Corridor campaign developed by the Midway Chamber of Commerce.

The campaign, which encourages people to “buy local,” features a loyalty program that gives registered patrons access to deals and promotions at participating businesses along the Central Corridor line.

He said the loyalty program has 1,300 registered users and is gaining momentum.

From April to May, Ferguson saw a 50 percent increase in the number of people using loyalty cards at his registers, and he expects another 50 percent increase in June.

“It’s up to businesses to promote and market themselves,” he said. “At a time like this, if the staff is not promoting, you’re generally not going to be well received by the public.”

The Discover Central Corridor campaign is looking to partner with University of Minnesota Athletics for the first football game to promote businesses impacted by construction, as well as other events like a community dinner in August and a partnership with the St. Paul Saints baseball team this summer, Ferguson said.

While some local business owners like Ferguson have turned to marketing campaigns and specials, others look to city or local nonprofits for mitigation of losses experienced during construction.

Broyld, who helps businesses through workshops, grants and business strategy development, said there are many organizations for businesses to lean on.

“There’s a lot, and thank goodness there’s a lot,” the former business owner and community organizer said. “It’s a big job.”

Despite the efforts to support businesses, Broyld said there will never be enough resources available to cover all of the losses experienced between now and when the light rail opens in 2014.

Broyld said the construction couldn’t have come at a worse time, as businesses are already struggling from the recession.

“I have sleepless nights,” she said. “And I’m not even a business owner this is happening to.”

Some business owners in Stadium Village seem unfazed by construction, including Gold Country store manager Jon Mueller, who said the store has yet to see a dramatic effect.

But Big 10 Restaurant and Bar manager Tom Nelson said the lack of on-street parking, complicated detours and customer construction anxiety has “impacted business greatly.”

Ferguson remains hopeful that a majority of businesses will be able to weather the storm and reap the benefits of the 40,000 light-rail riders the Central Corridor is expected to bring to their storefronts.

The Stadium Village Commercial Association will be using its $10,000 portion of a Great Streets Façade Improvement Grant, which the city awarded it last month, to continue marketing and outreach to help businesses stay afloat.

Pribyl said she’s worried about the future of some businesses in the University of Minnesota area.

“As much as I want to be optimistic, I am certain that we will lose businesses down here,” Pribyl said. “This is probably as bleak as things can get.”