Stadium Village LRT work roils area businesses

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With any construction project comes dirt, noise, slow traffic and reduced parking.

And as Central Corridor light-rail construction is scheduled to begin in May, Stadium Village businesses are disappointed with the Metropolitan Council’s efforts at mitigation.

Businesses claim the group, which is leading the project, has been unwilling to discuss staging construction to avoid interfering with businesses, said Chris Ferguson, the Stadium Village Commercial Association representative for light-rail talks. Council members haven’t met requests for better signage directing pedestrians to business districts or bigger loan options for those heavily impacted.

“It’s just not something they care about,” Ferguson said. “[The Met Council’s] priority is to get it the construction done on time and on budget, and if businesses go bankrupt as a result of that, that’s just a cost of the project that business owners have to bear.”

Both the Met Council’s Stadium Village liaison and spokeswoman Laura Baenen declined to comment as they’re seeking public feedback this month, Baenen said.

“I don’t think we’re crying wolf,” SVCA President Nancy Rose Pribyl said. “I think there’s a sincere concern about how to help folks out and ensure they survive this.”

According to a Met Council impact study, light-rail construction should only affect business revenues by between 0 and 2.5 percent during the four-year construction process. But with the study lumping together all business types, some believe the forecast is inaccurate.

Ferguson, who owns the Washington Avenue Dairy Queen, said while business offices without a steady stream of customers may not feel the effects of construction, other studies of projects that are similar to the Central Corridor, like one in Seattle, have shown local businesses that are dependent on foot traffic could see a 40 to 50 percent loss in revenue.

Ferguson said the Met Council’s study is just one of many ways the Council has “dropped the ball” when it comes to mitigating construction impacts on businesses.

“The facts don’t line up with their rhetoric,” he said of the Met Council. The effects of construction on businesses in St. Paul have already been much greater than expected, Ferguson said.

Currently the Met Council is planning to offer $10,000 low-interest loans for businesses to stay operational during construction, but with the loans not yet available, it’s difficult to tell how easy it will be for businesses to get them or if the amount will be adequate.

Ferguson said he doesn’t believe $10,000 will be enough for some of the larger local businesses like Sally’s Saloon and Eatery or Stub & Herbs that operate with larger cash flows. It would be reasonable for those businesses to need loans of up to $200,000 to ensure stability, he said.

Raising Cane’s owner Kerry Kramp Jr. said his biggest concern with construction is keeping the sidewalks open and finding adequate parking since access to Washington Avenue will be completely cut off.

With the recent light-rail-related construction in front of Stub & Herbs, Kramp said he could already see that the construction was changing pedestrians’ walking habits.

If pedestrians continue to be able to only cross on one side of the road, it could do a lot of harm for other businesses, Kramp said.

“Luckily we’re a destination, but we’re going to lose foot traffic,” he said. “I’m a growing company, and I can’t afford to lose that traffic.”

Pribyl said she was worried about the potential safety risks construction would pose for pedestrians in the area, like open pits and poor lighting at night.

“I don’t think folks have grasped how different life is here on campus,” Pribyl said, noting there’s a rush every time a class gets out during the day.

“[In a suburb] you’re not going to have the same activity as you have when you’re housing a dense population of 18- to 24-year-olds,” Pribyl said, “whether it’s people who have been drinking, people who are texting or people walking with an iPod in their ears.”

Pribyl said it’s important to avoid another pedestrian death like the former student who died in October near construction in Dinkytown. The woman was hit by a car on Fourth Street Southeast as she walked in the street to avoid sidewalk construction.

To help businesses stay afloat, many companies have banded together to create the website Central Corridor Perks.

The site offers discounts to more than 50 businesses along the future light-rail line in an attempt to make the area more attractive during construction.

“The message we want to get out is we need the help of the community around us in the area for a long time,” Ferguson said.

With the University of Minnesota and a hospital in the area, Ferguson said he believes Stadium Village may be able to keep its revenue decreases between 20 and 25 percent. But he said it won’t be possible without the community’s help.

“That is the No. 1 thing we need, is for them to shop.”