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LRT construction: 'Business dropped by about 40 percent. I cried many nights.'

LRT construction: 'Business dropped by about 40 percent. I cried many nights.'
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
Phyllis Gilliam: "When construction began on the Midway, we started to feel the effect but we didn't really feel it until it got here. Then the brook went dry."

Part 12 in a series

There's much more to do — wiring, lighting and signaling for starters — but heavy construction for LRT on University Avenue is over. Cars are once again moving down the street, and drivers no longer have to take circuitous paths to find a restaurant or shop. But for small businesses on University, surviving hasn't been easy. According to Metropolitan Council reports, since construction began in May 2011 through October of this year, 70 businesses closed. (Incredibly,, another 86 opened.) One that endured — but barely — is Sunday's Best Boutique at Frogtown Center on University and Dale, owned by Phyllis Gilliam. Her story:

Phyllis and Leo Gilliam
MinnPost photo by Marlys HarrisPhyllis and Leo Gilliam

We started as a consignment store in 2001 with my own clothing. I've got nine children. We were church people; so we dressed really nice. We put everything in the cleaners and opened up the store. Later we went into retail at 459 University. My uncle told me about the development at Frogtown Center, and he said, "You should go up there and put in an application. That would be a good location for you."

So I talked to the Neighborhood Development Center. [NDC is a nonprofit that finances and supports resident-owned small businesses in inner city neighborhoods. It sponsored Frogtown Center, a mixed-use development of senior apartments and retail businesses.] They were full. It wasn't even built yet! I prayed and prayed, and I said, "Lord, you told me that I could have what I wanted," and a month or two later they called me. The pharmacy that was going into this space changed their minds.

We came here in 2011. It's gone on two years in May. When we first opened, people were running in here, people would come through the front and the back — people walking past, from the bus. Once people knew we had parking, we got more customers. We got a lot of customers from the other businesses that are here too — Grooming House, that's the barbershop right next door, and then the phone company and Subway. The store would be crowded.

When construction began on the Midway, we started to feel the effect but we didn't really feel it until it got here. Then the brook went dry. A lot of people got in traffic and said they just didn't have the patience. We need to pray for patience, more patience, especially if we want our community to have small businesss and not have to go way out to Mall of America or to Roseville. People got to support these local businesses. You don't want to drive down the avenue and see all the buildings closed.

Business dropped by about 40 percent. I cried many nights. I'd say "Lord, I know you didn't bring me this far to leave me!" I prayed for people to come in. I tried to think of new ways to bring people in. We sent out cards, letters, put fliers on cars, sent letters to the pastors, to let them know that we are here and we would love it if they tell their congregation if they are looking for anything for church that they should come and patronize us. We kept going with repeat customers. They would come in and say, "The Lord told me to come over here and buy a dress" or "The Lord told me to come and buy a suit. I came to support you."  

Minnesota Moments 2012And bless the Neighborhood Development Center. They know and understand what you're going through. They are caring people.   They forgave six months of back rent. They helped us with advertising. And the City of St. Paul gave businesses grants to keep them afloat. A lot of people have helped.

In the last month things have picked up, after they opened the street. But I'm not at the point yet where we could get salaries. It's coming. We've got a lot of debts, a lot of bills.

I think though that there is what they call a light at the end of the tunnel. The station is right out in front; that should help a lot, I'm excited about the stop being there on Dale. Once everything is up and running, this is going to be a popular area.

This is going be another Grand Avenue. You go down Grand, and the people there, they don't even drive, they just walk. It's true that you see some businesses here closing, but other businesses are moving in because they know what the future holds.

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Comments (5)

Business

I see you have a nod to this in your intro--a StarTribune article from this past weekend says that while 76 businesses have closed along University, 73 new ones have opened up since construction on the Green Line started. It would be interesting to see how many of the closed businesses are independent and how many of the new ones are chains.

Of course it's unfortunate that these folks aren't doing as well as they had been, but this seems like a normal occurance. Lake Street in Minneapolis was recently completely torn up, and Nicollet is in the process of being done. It seems like the West Bank is constantly under construction and reconstruction. I'm reminded of another recent StarTribune article with a quote from a University Avenue business owner saying that by the time that person and their employees parked, there was none left for potential customers. That seems like more of a failure to adapt (...why are you taking up your own spots?? Park up the block!) than anything else.

The point is that these are regular cycles of maintenance and renewal...this one just happened to come with a massive value-adding project.

Patience

I have no doubt that business will pick up again. I'm sure it will take more than patience to wait for it...business is down, profits are down, and independent businesses don't have a parent company to help buffer the losses. However, I certainly hope those that survive are greatly rewarded for their patience (and prayers and loans and nights of worrying).

Big Scale

I can think of only two “reasons” for the kind of project that these folks have been put through, when it has been long known that it inflicts great economic damage upon established small-business districts during construction.

One is that, well, there’s lotsa money in it for the construction companies: years worth of it.

The other is that these trains are very obviously not buses, unlike streetcars, which I suspect are more apt to be perceived as transportation for the poor.

I’d like to see comparisons of maintenance and operating costs for light rail and streetcars. Maybe they’re readily available. But as we face years and decades of budget problems and painful choices (and ugly fights), light rail (as with high-speed rail, except maybe in densely populated corridors such as the Northeast) will be revealed as an expensive and foolish choice. And I’m not advocating for car culture.

Will this new line really facilitate emergence of more walkable neighborhoods that support small businesses? Not likely—I’ve seen the Great Wall of University Avenue.

Re: Big Scale

Streetcar and LRT operating costs should be fairly close as the technology at work is essentially the same, the difference primarily being in how the service operates (more at the link below). On heavily-used corridors like University, there may be more of an operations cost advantage for LRT due to generally higher capacity (e.g. three-car trains vs single unit streetcars).

A good write-up on this topic is available here: http://www.humantransit.org/2010/03/streetcars-vs-light-rail-is-there-a-...

The Great Wall of University Ave

First of all, to be on topic with the column, I think this was an inspiring look at one small business and its struggles during construction. I only wish that the column could have explored several small businesses with various points of view.

But, I also wanted to comment on Peter's thoughts. I, too, have seen the "Great Wall" of University Ave...love that description, too, since I now seem to be only able to cross as a pedestrian at major intersections, making my trip across the street a bit longer.

I think the Met Council believes operating light rail will be cheaper than operating buses. They already have several cuts to bus services planned once the light rail is running. You've definitely hit the mark with money involved in light rail, too. A great link to back this up comes from Anders' link of Human Transit: http://www.humantransit.org/2010/04/is-speed-obsolete-.html in which the author describes speculation and how much of an impact that plays in development. Light rail is perceived as something that will transport people better than a bus, so speculation says re-development is prime along the light rail.

I believe this light rail will be as slow as what the author of the above link talks about. Add to it, the 94 bus stop at Snelling and I94 will be eliminated, making midway trips to either downtown slower. The 16 bus service will likely be reduced, impact access to transit. The real purpose of the light rail was the speculation talked about in the above blog, especially since most of the area was already walkable and affordable with small local businesses that were accessible via buses. At least that has been my experience living in the neighborhood for more than a decade!