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Growing pains: LRT construction tough on some businesses

Rail beds and platforms on Fourth Street in front of Union Depot in Saint Paul
Photo by Jeff Syme
Rail beds and platforms on Fourth Street in front of Union Depot in St. Paul.

One night last week, I was chatting with a St. Paul business leader who had been an early and ardent backer of the Central Corridor light rail transit (LRT) project.

If he had it to do all over again, my friend volunteered, he’s not certain he would support the project. He said he simply never imagined it would cause so much disruption and economic hardship.

Jerry Blakey feels much the same way. Blakey, a former member of the St. Paul City Council, was the first chair of the Central Corridor Citizens Advisory Committee, which provided public input and support during the engineering and design of the LRT line.

Blakey also is the co-owner of Lowertown Wine & Spirits, which is located in downtown St. Paul on Fourth Street near Union Depot, the “ground zero” of LRT construction. Blakey and his Fourth Street neighbors are now in their third year of construction chaos, with two more to go.

“I don’t know what to say,” Blakey says. “It’s been a challenge.”

The 14-mile, $957 million Central Corridor line will run from downtown St. Paul near Blakey’s store along University and Washington Avenues, connecting with the Hiawatha LRT line near the Metrodome and terminating at Target Field in downtown Minneapolis.

Fourth Street has been a particularly complex segment of the project because of all of the utilities that had to be relocated.

Utilities relocated
Laura Baenen, communications manager for the project, says crews relocated a dozen or more public and private utilities, including some storm sewers dating to the 1860s to 1880s.

“To avoid service disruptions to District Energy customers, crews had to work in the middle of summer to relocate heated water pipes used to deliver heat to downtown buildings and the middle of the winter to relocate chilled water pipes that cool buildings,” Baenen says.

The sanitary sewer main, which also dates to the late 1800s, was left in place. But crews installed large manholes so public utility workers can access the sanitary sewer from outside of the track area in the future without having to deal with the track or the overhead catenary electrical system.

For Blakey and his neighbors, the construction work has meant multiple street closures and access challenges. “I think I’ve counted 27 times they’ve torn up the street,” he says. “It’s really been disruptive.”

The bottom line? Blakey says that store sales have plummeted by more than 50 percent since LRT work began in 2009.

As a result, Blakey says, he has had to lay off one employee and trim the hours of five others. He and his partner have worked extra hours, while forgoing a paycheck for three months each.

Despite the financial distress, Blakey said they decided not to apply for a forgivable loan from a fund created by the Metropolitan Council, cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and Living Cities philanthropic collaborative.

Blakey says it would have cost at least $3,000 in accounting services to pull together the necessary financial information for the application. In addition, he says, he was not confident that all of the private information he had to provided would remain confidential.

As this third construction season nears an end, the newly paved roadway and embedded track is nearly complete on Fourth Street from Minnesota Street to Broadway near the rail line’s terminus. The project office says the street should be opened to traffic next month.

Next year, crews will return to Fourth Street to install catenary polls, wiring and traction power substations, work that will continue into 2013. But Baenen promises “the effect on the public will be minimal.”

Brighter future?
So, as the street work nears an end and the framework of the Union Station platform rises a half-block away, does Blakey see a brighter future?

“I’ve talked to some people in Minneapolis [along the Hiawatha LRT corridor] who have gone through this, and they have seen an increase in business traffic,” he says. “So that’s what we are hanging our hat on. But the losses we have experienced are going to take a few years to make up.”

According to the project office, about two dozen businesses along the corridor have closed since the start of construction, apparent victims of the project as well as the recession. But it says about three dozen new businesses have opened during the same period.

One of them is Lucy Coffee Café, located in the Griggs-Midway Building at University and Fairview Avenues.

Owner Julie Peck was out of town late last week, but her fiancé, Cory Prestangen, says Peck started her business with her eyes wide open. He says Peck had worked in the building, knew the area well and spent 18 months preparing her business plan.

“She saw there was a real need [for her café], whether light rail was here or not,” Prestangen says. “She knew there were going to be some short-term growing pains. But long-term, light rail is going to benefit the community.”

He says they look forward to the opening of the rail line in 2014, but that “we’re in this for the long haul.”

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/10/2011 - 09:52 am.

    “I think I’ve counted 27 times they’ve torn up the street”

    I’ve heard this from several people Downtown. All wondered why streets had to be excavated more than once…it’s a valid question which Dornfeld evidently chose not to ask.

    If the pathetic return on all the millions of tax dollars spent on “planning” this project is indicative of how it will be managed in the future, and many believe it is, disruption will have to be an ongoing budget item for any business remaining on the corridor after it is comissioned.

  2. Submitted by John Ferman on 10/10/2011 - 12:22 pm.

    Too bad Steven didn’t list the names of the two dozen businesses that have closed and gone somewhere else. This would have been of benefit of non-locals who venture to University Ave businesses irregularily.

  3. Submitted by Margo Mitchell on 10/10/2011 - 01:54 pm.

    I am really curious about Jerry Blakey’s statement, “…it would have cost at least $3,000 in accounting services to pull together the necessary financial information for the application. In addition, he says, he was not confident that all of the private information he had to provided would remain confidential.”

    Other business owners along the LRT construction line say the forgivable loan program established by Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and Living Cities philanthropic collaborative for the survival of businesses has ben critical and a recognition that the existing businesses are important to support through the construction. They’re using the program.

    If a business owner like Blakey choses not to secure funds established to protect him from hardship than what can you say to them? You might go out of business but that’s tough if you refuse to avail yourself of financial support to prevent that from happening. Am I still suppose to have sympathy?

    Change is not easy but made all the more difficult if people are obdurate and refuse to act against their best interests. Two dozen businesses closed but three dozen opened along the corridor and LIFE GOES ON.

    If you go back to the late 1970s, it was clear that the Twin Cities needed to address the growth of population and pressures that it placed on our transportation infrastructure. And, not only has there been growth in numbers of families in the Twin Cities but also the numbers of cars (per family) rapidly exceeded our roads and everybody agreed you couldn’t build roads fast enough nor was there enough real estate to be acquired to pave the city over. Delay after delay, not to mention political stupidity, brought this lack of planning and implementation to a crisis point and now we’re playing catch-up.

    Every effort is being made to assist these businesses through the difficult period but if they refuse to accept the support – I’m sorry – I find it difficult to cry for you.

  4. Submitted by greg copeland on 10/10/2011 - 02:00 pm.

    Come on Swifty this the DFL’s Billion Dollar Public Works Jobs Program, Obama Phase I; Obama Phase II is in Congress… Of course the irony is that St.Paul’s Jobless Rate has gotten worse;Yes, actually increased over the last two years of Light Rail Transit construction.

    Here is the JOBS CRISIS story the old media, nor the new media writers, have reported in their on-going years of coverage devoted to multiple press conferences and visits by the US Secretary of Transportation hosted by the DFL’s US Senators, US Rep., St. Paul Mayor, Ramsey County Commissioners, and Met Council Chair and members.

    City of St. Paul Unemployment Rate, according to MN DEED, Department of Employment and Economic Development:

    July 2010 7.9% 11,648 jobless citizens
    July 2011 9.6% 14,392 jobless citizens

    Ramsey County Unemployment Rate

    July 2010 7.6% 20,920 jobless citizens
    July 2011 9.1% 25,637 jobless citizens

    Minnesota Unemployment Rate

    July 2010 7.1% 211,549 jobless citizens^
    ^9.88% of all Minnesota jobless citizens lived in Ramsey County in July 2010.

    July 2011 7.4% 223,299 jobless citizens*
    *11.48% of all Minnesota’s jobless lived in Ramsey County in July 2011!

    “OCCUPY MINNESOTA!” Blew it, choosing to camp-out where the jobs are in Hennepin County with a jobless rate of 6.9%.

  5. Submitted by Margo Mitchell on 10/10/2011 - 02:41 pm.

    Well Copie, its a good thing we don’t have to live with Scott Walker and the job killing GOP forces working in Congress to destroy the middle class. Walker’s great idea for Wisconsin was to KILL 15,000 jobs in a high-tech factory designed to build energy efficient transportation. Do you know where to jobs are going? To China. Because the GOP and their offshore, jobs exporting programs murdered million and millions of jobs. All the while the high-tech industry is booming in Asia.

    And that’s just energy. The GOP and Scott Walker would love to hack away at jobs in schools, layoff teachers, slash benefits, and lower their wages. They’d love to undermine the earning power of average working Americans in order to protect their large campaign contributors. That’s right Copie, the GOP is wielding an axe and have a proven track record of killing millions on jobs a month. Millions. And they say all they care about are jobs… LIARS. All the Republicants care about is destroying jobs.

  6. Submitted by Lance Groth on 10/10/2011 - 05:28 pm.

    I love the hypocrisy of the Right. They want government small. They want it to “stay out of the way” of private industry. They rebrand the rich as “Job Providers”. Yet, all they’ve been doing lately is beating up Obama for not creating enough jobs.

    Which is it? Do you want government providing jobs, or do you want the private sector doing it? If the latter, then where are the jobs? For ten years we’ve been told, just give tax breaks to the rich, and they’ll provide jobs, and the economy will boom and life will be happy-happy-fun-land for all. So we’ve given the desired tax breaks, while paying more in taxes ourselves and generally getting shafted every which way, and what did we get? A crashed economy, a financial sector meltdown, a housing sector implosion (all of which happened before Obama), and 9-10% (or higher, depending on how you slice it) unemployment.

    Better pay attention to the 99%’ers. They’re finally waking up, and they’re pissed. They’re tired of being used by the lying Republican Rich. The 1% had better start giving back, while they still have a choice.

    As Jefferson is said to have said, “I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. ” Funny how the Right saw it that way with the TP’ers, but not the 99%’ers, whom they attempt to rebrand a “mob”. Well, I guess democracy is in the eye of the beholder, eh? Or is that the glint of fear we see in the eyes of the Republican Rich?

  7. Submitted by Margo Mitchell on 10/10/2011 - 05:42 pm.

    If a group of people stand up and make their voices heard, it is funny how quickly they say, it’s not a DEMOCRACY and we don’t have a democracy “government of the people, by the people, for the people…”; they say we have a Republic. We have a Republic when it is convenient for them to distance themselves from the will and outcry of the people. Basically, they are saying, “Go away. There is nothing to see here. No, there is no democracy. Only a republic. So shut up and go away…” So why all the pretense. Why talk about democracy if there isn’t going to be any and that government is there only to serve the incredibly rich 1%?

  8. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/10/2011 - 10:37 pm.

    Most of these small merchants have refused to take the “loans” because they’re not sure they can pay them back. They must remain in their location for five years, I believe, before the loans become forgivable “grants” and they’re not sure that’s doable either.

    I lived through the devastation of the Rondo neighborhood when the I-94 freeway was built back in the 50s. Our family moved a mile south of the construction area to escape the carnage. But most of the black-owned neighborhood merchants were destroyed. It’s heartbreaking to see the same breed of politicians and know-it-all urban planners destroy yet another generation of budding entrepreneurs and capitalists who happen to be poor and black without any regard to the lives and dreams they’re destroying, and being so out of touch with these people that they actually think that low-interest loans will make up for their destruction.

  9. Submitted by Michael Samuelson on 10/10/2011 - 10:56 pm.


  10. Submitted by Steven Liesch on 10/11/2011 - 12:43 am.

    I love the use of numbers in arguments.

    Case in point :
    City of St. Paul Unemployment Rate, according to MN DEED, Department of Employment and Economic Development:

    July 2010 7.9% 11,648 jobless citizens
    July 2011 9.6% 14,392 jobless citizens

    Ramsey County Unemployment Rate

    July 2010 7.6% 20,920 jobless citizens
    July 2011 9.1% 25,637 jobless citizens.

    Amazing that he uses comparison dates encompassing the mass layoffs during the State of Minnesota shutdown.

  11. Submitted by Allan Wilson on 10/11/2011 - 08:30 am.

    The one success story cited in this article, Lucy Coffee Cafe, is located in the Griggs Midway Building, which is the headquarters of the massive engineering and construction operation for the project. Once they’re gone, so probably will be Lucy’s business.

  12. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/11/2011 - 08:53 am.

    “The 1% had better start giving back, while they still have a choice.”


    I think this succinctly sums up the motto for the Democrat 2012 election season..possible alternatives:

    “No Hopey Changey for YOU Mr. Rich Guy!”

    “Just hand it over, before we come and get it.”

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