Chris Ferguson wasn’t sure what would happen when construction of the 11-mile Central Corridor light rail line began last March, but he had a feeling it wouldn’t be good.
Ferguson, owner of the Dairy Queen restaurant on Washington Avenue in the Stadium Village neighborhood near the University of Minnesota, says that when the construction equipment and traffic snarls began working their way west, he braced for a financial hit.
“We were expecting, based on conversations with business owners in Lowertown and in other cities where projects like this have happened, a significant loss in revenue,” Ferguson says. “We were expecting a 30-35 percent drop. But the impact was quite a bit less than I thought it would be. We were only down about nine percent during construction.
“Nine percent is still nine percent, but it could have been a whole lot worse.”
Ferguson’s relatively positive experience during construction can be credited at least partly to a coordinated effort to encourage consumers to keep patronizing businesses along the corridor–or, in many cases, to brave the obstacles and visit them for the first time. (The Line reported on an early phase of some of these efforts in May of last year.)
The Midway Chamber of Commerce used $125,000 in philanthropic support and money from the city to lead a grassroots “Buy Local” marketing campaign that began last spring and is currently winding down. Working in tandem with the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce-led Discover Central Corridor initiative, the community-based effort used numerous means to encourage residents living both on the corridor and elsewhere to keep shopping on University Avenue.
According to the Midway Chamber’s figures, that $125,000 grant led to more than $450,000 worth of promotional value in the form of media mentions and other free publicity.
Coupons as Heroes
The campaign, spearheaded by Minneapolis marketing firm Nemer Fieger, contained several elements, the most successful of which was a coupon book that led to hundreds of extra visits to corridor businesses.
“The goals were really to promote the businesses along the line and show people how many unique and different great businesses there are there,” says Megan Swenson, an account executive at Nemer Fieger. “We wanted them to look beyond construction and drive traffic to those businesses. Show the diversity and great little gems along that whole space.”
“The overall initiative built some awareness, but it also drove some customers to our door,” says Ferguson. “We had over 800 coupons returned from the coupon book they did. That was 800 people who might not have come in otherwise, just from that one item.”
Canfield agreed that the coupon book, 100,000 of which were distributed last summer at businesses and at special corridor-sponsored events such as a Minnesota Gophers football game, was a bit hit–so much so that a second book is coming out this month.
“The biggest feedback we got from both business owners and customers was from the coupon book,” says Midway Chamber Executive Director Kari Canfield. “Subway got 300 of the coupons redeemed; Campus Pizza got almost 400. Those were typical numbers. For some of the businesses it was the most successful coupon or marketing effort they’d ever had.”
Lunch and Art
Other components of the grass-roots marketing campaign included Lunch on the Avenue, a biweekly call for diners to gather at specific restaurants ranging from McDonald’s to J.J.’s Fish and Chicken. That initiative has drawn an average of 30 customers per event.
“Owners and patrons say they take their families back to these restaurants on their own after trying them,” says Canfield. These are places they wouldn’t have known about it or gone to it otherwise.”
A public art initiative, Hats Off to the Central Corridor, invited artists to decorate hard hats and styrofoam model heads; the results were shown off at an exhibition in early May at the Lyric at Carleton Place that also offered food from Corridor restaurants.
The marketing effort was designed to offset the fears of business owners and customers along the corridor. With detours, limited parking and traffic reduced to a single lane in various parts of University Avenue, business owners complained loudly as construction began that the ongoing $957 million project, which is due for completion in 2014, would wipe them out.
In fact, while a few small businesses have shuttered during the project and a handful of others moved, many owners have had experiences similar to that of Ferguson: Some disruption, some inconvenience, and a noticeable financial hit–but not the catastrophic loss of revenue that could have been.
“It’s hard to measure sometimes what any particular effort has done or hasn’t done,” says Ferguson. “But there were a lot of different pieces put in place that really helped to drive traffic to our business and our neighbors’ business.”
Now that LRT construction has made its way into Minneapolis, the Metropolitan Council is picking up the baton and plans a buy-local marketing campaign similar to the one engineered by the Midway Chamber.
The council will spend $1.2 million on a campaign, announced in January, that will focus on the diversity of businesses along the avenue and convincing residents that they are accessible, safe, and worth visiting. St. Paul marketing and ad firm Mod and Company will handle the campaign for the Met Council.
In addition to the 50,000-copy run of the new coupon book, the Midway Chamber is airing a new 30-second public service ad reminding residents to shop the corridor. The ad will air on, among other stations, the CW Network, which donated production facilities to help create the ad.
Also, Lunch on the Avenue will continue; the DiscoverCentralCorridor.com website will get beefed up with a directory of businesses and catering and events pages; an Adopt-a-Business loyalty rewards program with U7 (the University Avenue Business Preparation Collaborative); and a Central Corridor marketing hotline that customers or business owners can call with specific questions about using marketing programs or get access to a business during construction.
“The overall message is, look beyond the barricades,” says Canfield. “That’s all businesses want people to know: ‘Come on over, we’re still open.”
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Dan Heilman’s last article for The Line was a Faces of Leadership profile of Volunteers of America president Paula Hart.