Documenting changes for small businesses along light rail line

Nick Clausen is a former TV videographer. He’d been telling one-minute video stories for years when he realized that he wanted to do something more meaningful with his skills. A few years ago, he decided to try to make a feature length documentary film.

Light rail construction on University Avenue in St. Paul.
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
Light rail construction on University Avenue in St. Paul.

Clausen grew up near University Avenue in St. Paul and continues to live in the area. He knows the stretch of “The Avenue” between downtown St. Paul and the Minneapolis border well and decided the small, independent businesses there would be an interesting subject for a film.

University Avenue
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
University Avenue

As he began to talk to people about his idea, he found out that the planned light rail line was not welcomed by all the owners of small businesses on the proposed route. Some were adamantly opposed, and worried that they might not be able to survive the loss of revenue during the construction period. Others thought that the line itself would not bring in any new business for them after its completion.

Street traffic is difficult for small business during the construction phase.
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
Street traffic is difficult for small business during the construction phase.

Clausen began filming in 2009 and expects this to be a four-year endeavor. He has found five small, diverse businesses on University Avenue to check in on periodically — before, during and after the construction period comes to their block. A sixth subject decided to go out of business before the construction began.

Passenger waits at temporary bus stop on University Avenue.
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
Passenger waits at temporary bus stop on University Avenue.

I recently spent an afternoon with Clausen as he interviewed two of his five subjects. Alex Pham owns the Pho Ca Dao restaurant at 439 University Ave. and Tim Wilson owns Urban Lights Music at 1449 University. Pham is anticipating a significant loss in business and Wilson says he had an 80 percent loss of revenue during some parts of the construction phase. 

(There is some dispute over how much revenue small businesses are losing. The policy director for St. Paul’s mayor says documented business losses have not been nearly as severe as some of the claims made in public.)

Nick Clausen interviews Pho Ca Dao restaurant owner Alex Pham.
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
Nick Clausen interviews Pho Ca Dao restaurant owner Alex Pham.
Nick Clausen interviews Tim Wilson, owner of Urban Lights Music.
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
Nick Clausen interviews Tim Wilson, owner of Urban Lights Music.

In this video, Clausen talks about his documentary project and introduces us to Alex Pham and Tim Wilson.

The business landscape of University Avenue is changing because of the light rail line.
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
The business landscape of University Avenue is changing because of the light rail line.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Josh Williams on 12/15/2011 - 09:45 am.

    Thanks for the article, Steve. Both you and Mr. Clausen (as well as readers) might be interested to know of a smiliar effort called ‘Transitions: Univeristy Ave’. The project–a cooperative effort of Gordon Parks High School (located on University Ave, near Lexington) and the Minnesota Historical Society–has Gordon Parks HS students recording the history of University Ave businesses and residents, and documenting the change as the Central Corridor LRT is constructed.

    The project’s website:

    UniversityAve.org

  2. Submitted by Matty Lang on 12/15/2011 - 12:33 pm.

    I understand the difficulties of getting through the construction period and I supported spending more on the project to further accommodate businesses struggling through construction. I also understand certain business owners not understanding how this project will benefit them when completed although they are mistaken in my evaluation. This project (although a lot of details could have been done better) will benefit the entire University Avenue corridor and is much more than a train to get people from Saint Paul to downtown MPLS–half of the opponents criticize the project for this fact.

    All of that said, I hope some of the business owners that will be in Mr. Clausen’s (digital) film but were not a part of the MinnPost video in this story are supportive of the project. The film needs to also represent the many small business owners who are excited for what this project will bring to The Avenue and who are also excited to continue to improve the details that are not the best to begin with.

    I’m excited to be moving to one of the neighborhoods along The Avenue and hope to add another small business front to the mix soon.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/15/2011 - 07:35 pm.

    “The policy director for St. Paul’s mayor says documented business losses have not been nearly as severe as some of the claims made in public.”

    Yeah, pity about those spoilsports that closed up shop just to make them look bad, eh?

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