Fallen bridge takes toll on some nearby businesses

Cleaners in trouble
Gophers Cleaners owner Debbie Allen, left, and her son Paul. Allen says until business picks up, she'll probably have to lay off up to five of her seven employees.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Many businesses near the I-35W bridge are still wobbling after the one-two punch they took. When the span collapsed, that choked off a main artery leading to the area.

And the closing of the nearby 10th Ave. bridge, which is currently in use as headquarters for the recovery efforts, has diverted yet more car traffic away from the area.

Gas sales down
Gas sales at Bobby and Steve's Auto World have dipped about 17 percent since the bridge collapse. The business is located a few blocks southwest of the fallen span.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Businesses near the bridge are waiting eagerly for that traffic to return.

A few blocks southwest of the fallen span sits Bobby and Steve's Auto World, a gas station, repair shop and convenience store. Gas sales at the station have dropped about 17 percent compared to the week before the bridge collapse. Business in the convenience store has also dropped that much, according to team leader Adam Levasseur.

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"We're down anywhere from $800 to $1,000 a shift, comparing to the weeks before," Levasseur says. "There are three shifts a day, so it's a pretty sizeable amount."

Levasseur says while calls to Bobby and Steve's towing business are holding steady, they cost more to answer.

"With this bridge being down, we're having to use detours, [which] racks up extra mileage, which we don't generally get paid on, and it takes us longer as well," he says.

Levasseur reports no plans for layoffs at this point. But he says Bobby and Steve's is taking steps to reduce costs.

You can't blame or grace everything upon the bridge. But if you see people with binoculars around their neck, walking from the direction of the bridge, you can probably figure that's where it came from.

Other businesses in the area of the collapsed bridge tell a different story. About a mile west of the fallen span, the liquor store Surdyk's has seen no change in business.

Several restaurants near the bridge enjoyed an initial spike in sales after the collapse. They say it was mostly due to an influx of gawkers.

For some, the flurry of activity fell off quickly. But new customers keep rolling into Annie's Parlour, a burger and malt joint in the university neighborhood of Dinkytown -- walking distance from the I-35W bridge.

Tony Rimarcik is vice president of Annie's parent company. He's seeing customers coming from as far away as New York, as well as families with kids driving in from the suburbs.

"We are seeing different people," he notes. "A lot more strollers, a lot more people in tourist mode."

Rimarcik says business at Annie's has shot up an average of 20 percent compared to this time last year, with peak days hitting 50 percent. But Annie's is the exception among the half dozen restaurants Rimarcik's company owns.

The roster includes the Kitty Kat Klub, a bar just downstairs from Annie's. Sales at the Kitty Cat have actually dipped a bit, even though it's the same location. Rimarcik says business is also lagging at four downtown Minneapolis eateries his company owns.

Rimarcik believes a variety of factors are at play. Weather, summer break at the university, and vacation patterns can all punch up or pinch restaurant business.

"You can't blame or grace everything upon the bridge. But if you see people with binoculars around their neck, walking from the direction of the bridge, you can probably figure that's where it came from," Rimarcik says.

Business is up
Tony Rimarcik of Annie's Parlour restaurant has seen sales climb as much as 50 percent since the bridge collapse, due in large part to tourists toting binoculars.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

For some businesses, the bridge collapse threatens to cause protracted harm -- especially if combined with other problems.

That's true for Gopher Cleaners at 4th St. SE and I-35W. Owner Debbie Allen has endured snowballing bad luck. It started with the bridge collapse. Allen says business dropped by about 80 percent right after that.

"We went from like $1,500 a day to like $300," she says.

On top of that, Allen had a small electrical fire in the building late Friday night. It took out her laundry facilities. A burnt smell now hangs in the air.

As Allen describes her plight, a customer drops in. He'd heard about the fire and remembered he had a pair of pants there.

"It didn't even bother me. I felt bad for you, you know," he says.

But Allen says she's not sure that kind of customer loyalty will overcome the hassles of getting to her store.

"They like me, but I'm not sure they like anybody that much," she laughs.

Allen says until things pick up, she'll probably have to lay off about five of her seven employees.

Allen and other area proprietors are hoping the resumption of classes at the university, and the eventual reopening of the 10th Ave. bridge will direct customers back their way and get them back on their feet.

In the meantime, the Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development Department is studying the effects of the bridge collapse on local businesses. The agency is seeking ways to help out, which may include offering low-interest loans.