Minneapolis officials urge residents to support businesses affected by bridge collapse

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Any afternoon rush hour, Gwen Engelbert can look out the front window and see traffic cops wildly waving drivers past her E. Hennepin Avenue boutique.The patrols are needed to help manage a surge of traffic congestion in the East Bank and Marcy Holmes neighborhoods in Minneapolis since the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed Aug. 1.

But it doesn’t exactly help a business trying to catch a few drivers’ eyes with window displays and sale banners.

“We went from slow growth to a downward turn,” said Engelbert, who co-owns Key North, at 514 E. Hennepin Ave., with her partner Katie Greene.

Unlike businesses to the east on Johnson Street, who are hurting from fewer people driving past, shops in these neighborhoods are dealing with too much traffic on their doorsteps.

The shop is among the dozens of Northeast businesses that have been affected by the bridge collapse, and on the eve of the holiday shopping season city officials visited several of them Monday in an attempt to spotlight their situations and encourage residents to support local businesses.

“Shopping close to home is always a good way to promote healthy communities,” Mayor R.T. Rybak said, “but it’s especially important now that some of these businesses are struggling to make it through this difficult time.”

Greene and Engelbert, who opened the shop in July 2006, said there’s no way of accurately guessing how much of their downturn is due to the bridge. But they’ve heard customers say they aren’t coming to Northeast as much because of the congestion. They’re also concerned about the safety of those customers, especially pedestrians, who are still coming to the area.

“The traffic is continuing to go really fast, and there seems to be some road rage out there,” Engelbert said.

It’s not exactly an atmosphere that makes somebody want to pull over and look for a deal on the way home from work.

John Eckley, owner of City Salvage at 505 1st Ave. N.E., said he used to get people stopping in at the end of the day to browse his cavern of odd antiques. Since the bridge collapse, the customers who used to wander in between 4 and 5 o’clock aren’t coming anymore. He’s also seen a drop in customers from south Minneapolis and the southern suburbs.

Johnson Street struggling more
All that traffic is a problem Johnson Street merchants would love to have, said Council Member Paul Ostrow. The shops there were once just minutes from downtown Minneapolis via freeway. They’ve been the hardest-hit businesses since the collapse, which left them isolated from the rest of the city except by side streets.

“What we heard today is that these businesses are having a challenge making ends meet,” Ostrow said.

The city reached out to small business owners after the bridge collapse, said Mike Christenson, the city’s economic development director. About 70 showed up at a meeting and they’ve kept in regular contact with several. Many saw steep decreases — as high as 40 percent — immediately after the collapse, he said. Most have returned much closer to business as usual since then, Christenson said.

The city helped 11 small businesses obtain small, low-interest loans to tide them over until holidays holiday sales can hopefully carry them. As a result of the loans and the city’s communication efforts, Christenson thinks the city’s response has been a success. He’s aware of only one business, Gopher Laundromat, to close citing the bridge collapse as a reason.

“You wouldn’t have predicted you’d lose the 35W bridge without massive economic disruption,” Christenson said.

Others may be nearing closure, though, especially on Johnson Street. Ostrow said unless some shops see a sizable increase in sales, the low-interest loans won’t be enough to sustain them. He wants to look into having the city possibly fund a marketing campaign or maybe street or landscaping improvements on Johnson Street.

“There are some wonderful visions for that corridor, but the key thing now is to see what we can do to lend a hand to these businesses,” Ostrow said.

Traffic brings problems, visibility
Closer to the Mississippi River, it’s easier to see a silver lining. Margaret McDonald, owner of Let’s Cook at 330 E. Hennepin Ave., said added traffic is both a challenge and an opportunity.

“We think it’s giving us a lot more visibility,” McDonald said.

The visibility hasn’t translated into sales yet, though. She said the store is usually busier this time of year than it has been lately.

Eckley doesn’t think the neighborhood has lost its momentum. A much buzzed-about restaurant from the owner of Bryant-Lake Bowl opens this week next to City Salvage. A salon is opening around the corner on Central Avenue, and other developments are in the works, too. The business association is talking about shared advertising to help carry it through.

Said Eckley: “It will come back.”

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