Small-business owners along a future light-rail line connecting St. Paul to Minneapolis can learn more about a $4 million forgivable loan program Thursday at the first of several informational sessions.
Independently-owned retail businesses that can prove a decline in revenue because of Central Corridor construction can apply for loans of up to $20,000.
The owner of Caffe Biaggio on University Avenue in St. Paul said that will help pay her bills through the summer, but it won't cover all of her losses. Owner Shari Breed said she's had to lay off two servers and cut hours for her kitchen staff.
While some customers and business groups have made an effort to support her, most patrons seem to be avoiding her stretch of University Avenue because of the construction and a lack of parking, Breed said.
"It's gotten progressively slower," Breed said. "The first month I don't think had an impact at all. But then April, May, got less and less and less busy, especially at lunch. "
Breed estimates her June revenue will be down about $10,000 compared to last year. She plans to apply for the loan and point to tax records documenting the decline.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said the city is taking unprecedented steps to help retailers and restaurants stay afloat. The loans require the business owner to provide at least three years of tax returns and list their business debts.
Some businesses have questioned the terms of the loan, but Coleman said the requirements are necessary to track whether a business suffered as a result of the light-rail project.
"This isn't free money," he said. "This is money specifically designed to replace any lost income that a business might have as a result of construction, or at least try to mitigate it."
Officials expanded the loan program in April, and increased the total amount in the fund from $1.5 million.
The loans will be fully forgiven after five years if the business remains on the corridor.
If a business relocates or closes before five years, it will have to repay the existing debt, said Nancy Homans, Coleman's policy director. But if the business closes for financial reasons and has no other assets, the government would probably not get its money back.
"We're not going to take their house," said Homans. "[But] it would seem fair that taxpayer money be repaid."
The Metropolitan Council, which is building the line, is contributing $2.5 million; the city of St. Paul, $1 million; and the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, a group of local and national foundations, is paying $500,000.
The agencies say the grants, loans and other kinds of support for businesses total more than $11 million. Still, the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce believes more is needed. The chamber, along with a host of local business associations, is pressuring the Met Council to support a more coordinated marketing campaign to attract customers to area businesses during LRT construction.
A letter sent to Met Council chairwoman Susan Haigh last week requests $1 million per year, over the next three years.
The Neighborhood Development Center is holding informational workshops on the forgivable loan program at the Central Corridor Resource Center, 1080 W. University Ave., in St. Paul, at the following times:
June 23: 8 to 10 a.m.
June 30: 6 to 8 p.m.
July 5: 8 to 10 a.m.
July 7: 6 to 8 p.m.
July 12: 8 to 10 a.m.
July 14: 6 to 8 p.m.
July 19: 8 to 10 a.m.
July 21: 6 to 8 p.m.