There was good news and bad news at the October 15 meeting of the University Avenue Business Association (UABA). The bad news is that the Met Council has still not come through with mitigation funds to deal with the inevitable loss of business due to light rail construction. UABA members are also not happy with accounts of the current light rail construction happening in downtown St. Paul, where promised signage for construction areas was not adequate or timely, according to speakers at the meeting. The good news is that Wing Young Huie is planning a public art project along University Avenue similar to the one he did along Lake Street, and many businesses will get to be part of an artistic endeavor that will both draw people into University Avenue and will celebrate the people and businesses along the neighborhoods surrounding the avenue.
Mike Baca, UABA Vice President and owner of Impressive Print started out the meeting by saying that UABA is not against the light rail, but at the same time believes that University Avenue businesses need to create a united front in order to protect their interests in light of the forthcoming construction. “The reality is that some businesses will not survive,” Baca said.
Lysa Bui, Chair of the Save Our Businesses and Jobs Campaign, and owner of Saigon Restaurant, said “the only fair solution” to the loss of revenue that businesses will suffer, “is business mitigation.” Bui said that while the light rail may provide a prosperous climate once it is built, many businesses may not be able to make it through the process. “How can we benefit from the outcome if we don’t survive during construction?” Bui said.
Son Truong, co-owner of Senor Wong Restaurant, shared his experience dealing with light rail construction in Downtown Saint Paul, which began this summer. He said that his lunch business declined because customers had to walk so far in order to park. Truong said that since construction began in July, there has been no signage besides the signs that he created himself, and even then, many customers didn’t see it. He also said if there hadn’t been a parking ramp within walking distance of his restaurant, he would probably have gone out of business.
Truong also said that he felt that he was frustrated with communication during the process of the construction, and that whenever he had a complaint about an issue, the response he got from the Met Council was, “Our hands are tied.”
Robin Kaufman, Manager of Public Involvement at Met Council, attended the meeting, and said in response to Truong’s complaint that there was a lack of signage: “We put signs up yesterday”.
Many at the meeting felt that for signs to go up now, when the construction started in July, proves that Met Council is not doing an adequate job in this area. Kaufman said that construction firms, who are contracted by the council, are responsible for creating the signage, but Fred Gates, a representative from U.S. Representative Betty McCollum, said that the Met Council needs to take responsibility that the signage happens not only at the beginning of construction, but before it even starts so that customers can be forewarned about where to park during construction. “This is absolutely ridiculous,” Gates said.
After the rather tense confrontation between the business owners and Kaufman, the meeting shifted to a lighter tone as Wing Young Huie was introduced. Huie, an internationally celebrated photographer whose work depicts “a changing cultural landscape,” as his bio puts it, is perhaps best known for his public work “Lake Street USA,” a six-mile public art exhibition of 600 photographs that he captured from everyday life along the poorest areas of Lake Street. The photographs were exhibited in the summer and fall of 2000 on shop windows and other public spaces along the street. When he began “Lake Street USA,” Huie said that 150 businesses agreed to participate, and none of the Uptown businesses wanted to have anything to do with it, as they didn’t want to be associated with the poorer areas east of uptown. “We got so much media attention,” Huie recalled, “That soon the Uptown businesses were calling us, asking to be a part of the project.”
Huie said that he plans to begin “The University Avenue Project” in the spring of 2010, and is in the process of approaching business owners to be a part of the exhibition. Already Rondo Library and the Creative Arts High School have agreed to be participants in the exhibition, and Huie will be working with schools and community groups in neighborhoods surrounding University Avenue for the project.
Like Lake Street USA, the University Avenue Project exhibition will take place on shop windows, billboards, bus stops, etc, but will also include a 40-foot-long, rear-view projection screen, much like a digital billboard, that is placed in an empty lot. The projection screen will display two simultaneous slideshows, playing at different speeds. The projection screen will stand in an empty lot that also has a stage, and Huie’s plan is to have open mic nights for the community throughout the summer, where community members, artists, and musicians can share their talent and stories.