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For a struggling Main Street, Wall Street seems a long ways away

With all the talk and speculation about how Wall Street’s problems are affecting Main Street, I set out one afternoon this week to ask small-business owners along my neighborhood’s “Main Street” — Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis — how the financial crisis is affecting them.

Ray Czupta’s response was typical: a shrug of uncertainty. Czupta owns Central Avenue Auto Body. When gas prices shot up over the last year, fewer people started coming in for repairs, he said. People are driving less and pocketing insurance claims instead of having repairs done, he said.

Unlike the rise in gas prices, the recent banking turbulence hasn’t had any detectable impact on the amount of work coming into his shop, he said.

“And then, talk to me in two weeks and maybe it’ll all change again,” he added.

Feeling pinched
Generally, the people I spoke with said the problems on Wall Street so far haven’t seemed to have affected their businesses. They’re waiting like the rest of us to find out what it will ultimately mean for them.

That’s not to say they aren’t feeling pinched. Gas prices, food inflation, the housing slump — all these factors have put a strain on them for months. Just because Wall Street is feeling a crunch, too, it doesn’t mean anything dramatic has changed — yet, anyways — for these neighborhood businesses.

Noelin Soosaithananda owns an Indian fashion boutique called N.M. Designs. She hasn’t noticed any recent changes in her customers’ habits. The brightly colored, sequined dresses hanging in her store are popular with many Hmong, Somali and other recent immigrant populations.

She speculated that most of them have not gotten around to investing in the stock market yet. (“Give them 10 years or so,” she said.) As a result they haven’t had the shock of seeing their portfolios wiped out in recent weeks.

While Soosaithananda hasn’t noticed a change in the past few weeks, she has seen customers cutting back over the past several months. Last summer she took a second, part-time job working as a translator for hospital patients.

She’s pessimistic about the chances for a government bailout to help her business or her customers: “No, no, no. It’s going to go into the rich people’s pockets. We are not going to see any difference at all.”

‘No extra money’
Juan Rubio is another businesses owner who’s seen a long-term change. Rubio owns Adelitas Mexican Restaurant. Last summer he saw lots of business from out-of-town roofing and construction workers. This year, with housing construction stalled, that business has disappeared. And office workers seem to be coming in less frequently, too, he said.

“People have no extra money,” Rubio said.

Tony Barrett, an economics professor at College of St. Scholastica, speaking this morning on Minnesota Public Radio’s Midday program, said the “real economy” was already teetering on the edge of a recession, and that doesn’t appear to have changed much either way as a result of what’s happening on Wall Street. That would change if people and businesses lose access to credit.

“If I’m a banker and I’ve been working with a business for 10 years, I have no reason to believe that business is less credit worthy today than it was yesterday,” Barrett said. “I would think that the banks would continue to operate and extend that nuts-and-bolts type of credit. On the other hand, maybe they will panic and just hoard all their cash and not lend out to credit worthy. But so far, the evidence suggests that hasn’t happened. But that’s what needs to be watched next.”

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