Light rail is coming and Ahvo Taipale is going, moving his ski shop north to Lauderdale after more than 30 years on University Avenue in St. Paul.
He says the new Finn-Sisu store at 2436 W. Larpenteur Ave., near Hwy. 280, the one-time site of the Rosehill Dairy Store, will open by June 1, 2010.
Looking around his current, somewhat cramped quarters at 1841 University Ave., near Fairview Avenue, Taipale noted, “The new store will double our size, with better warehousing, more retail, better access and lots and lots of on-site parking.”
The Central Corridor light rail transit line, scheduled to begin running between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul in 2014, promises to encourage commerce and ease traffic congestion. But it’s also causing concern among small business owners along its University Avenue route, who face a lengthy period of construction disruption and the loss of most on-street parking.
The current Finn-Sisu store has no parking lot, and light rail will eliminate the on-street spaces in front of it.
“It’s a shame that Ahvo is leaving, but he knows his situation better than anyone else,” said Linda Winsor, executive director of the University Avenue Business Association. “We’ve heard other businesses say they might move, but most want to stay. Light rail may be a real benefit to them if they can survive the construction period. But there’s no doubt the loss of parking is causing some real anxiety for our members.”
Russ Stark, St. Paul City Council representative for Ward 4, called Taipale’s decision to move “a great loss for our community of a long-standing institution. That said, I also believe his parking issues could have been managed.”
Stark cited such options as leasing off-street parking from nearby businesses, something Taipale has tried in the past with mixed success, and taking advantage of programs to assist business owners in developing coping strategies.
Some of those programs are administered by St. Paul’s Office of Planning and Economic Develop-ment. Spokesperson Natalie Fedie said the staff there was disappointed with Taipale’s decision to move.
“The staff did quite a bit of work with him,” she said, “including trying unsuccessfully to find another suitable location in the city. However, the site he’s leaving, which will have a light rail station right next door, may be perceived as ideal for another type of business.”
Another group that’s involved in helping small businesses deal with the challenges posed by light rail is the Neighborhood Development Center, which provides loans and individual consulting for Twin City businesses in high-potential/high-need neighborhoods, including University Avenue.
Mike Temali, president and CEO of the center, said that despite what he perceives as some apprehension and even anger about light rail, many small University Avenue businesses couldn’t move if they wanted to because of the costs involved and a customer base that would not necessarily follow them.
Lauderdale is delighted with Taipale’s decision.
“We’re very happy to welcome Finn-Sisu to Lauderdale,” said Lauderdale City Council Member Clay Christensen. “We have been looking forward to some development on that site for many years, and this fills a gap with an upscale business.”
Immediately adjacent to the new Finn-Sisu site is the former Rosehill Service station, closed since 2006. Asked about possible redevelopment, owner Art Peterson Jr. said he has “no plans at this point.”
When Taipale first contemplated opening a cross-country ski store in 1978, he said, “Everybody said, ‘Don’t do it.’ The sport had become enormously popular and it seemed there was someone on every corner selling skis.”
He named his enterprise “Finn” after his native Finland and “Sisu,” a word with many meanings, including perseverance and determination.
As the interest in cross-country skiing waned over the years, Taipale’s “sisu” may partially explain while he’s still in business when so many rivals have disappeared.
He’s encouraged by the fact that demand has stabilized and “business has really picked up” the last two winters. Finn-Sisu’s busy season is under way and will run through March, which is the reason he plans to wait until spring to occupy the new space.
The new building includes space that could be rented to a tenant – Lauderdale officials are hoping for a coffee shop somewhere in the area – but Taipale is taking a wait-and-see attitude. He’s especially excited about the opportunity to showcase his line of Finnleo saunas and related products, something he describes as the “backbone” of his business.
For now, the Finn-Sisu “family” will continue to consist of four full-time and three to five seasonal employees. But, as Taipale says, if business takes off, “who knows?”