University Avenue business see light rail construction rebound

Ha Tien BBQ and Deli
Ni Dao and her husband own the Ha Tien BBQ and Deli on University Ave. She says business has been picking up.
MPR Photo/Martin Moylan

Once the Green Line light rail cars start running next year between Minneapolis and St. Paul and bring tens of thousands of people past her door on University Avenue, Ni Dao hopes business will be stronger for her Ha Tien BBQ and Deli.

It's the kind of optimism shared by other businesses along the busy thoroughfare that's been clogged by construction crews since 2011.

Dao saw sales at her store, near the intersection with Western Avenue, drop 40 percent for about four months during the height of construction along her stretch of University Avenue. Many long-time customers decided it wasn't worth the hassle of trying to find a place to park and get to the store.

"We had no customers for like two hours straight," she said.

With business so slow, Dao and her husband decided to remodel Ha Tien while the light rail project went forward. Now word is getting out that her store is open and easier to get to.

"We have more (customers) than before. We still get people who come back and it's like, 'Oh, it's open now?,'" she said.

Ron Whyte is planning to expand his barbecue restaurant, Big Daddy's, adding indoor and outdoor seating and maybe more parking. Eventually, he says the light rail project could be a net positive for his business, where sales dropped about 40 percent for four to five months.

"One time you couldn't even get to us," he said. "The street was all tore up. You had to drive a half-mile down the street to turn onto another street. And if you weren't familiar with us, you weren't able to get here."

Like many business owners along the avenue, Whyte is short of parking spaces. Right now, he has no on-street parking and just a few spaces weekdays behind his shop. But Whyte says customer traffic has been picking up.

Ron Whyte
Ron Whyte, a co-owner of Big Daddy's BBQ restaurant on University Ave. W in St. Paul, Minn. hopes to expand now that the worst part of the light rail project is over.
MPR Photo/Martin Moylan

The Metropolitan Council says the light rail line between St. Paul and Minneapolis is 94 percent complete and should open by July of next year, in time for Major League Baseball's All-Star game at Target field.

Meanwhile, the Council has been funding a $1 million campaign to encourage people to patronize University Avenue businesses through ads on billboards as the sides of Metro Transit buses.

Since light rail construction began on University Avenue in March 2011, about 110 business have closed or moved off the entire light rail line route, not just on University, said Council spokeswoman Laura Baenen. But about 140 have opened, including some that have re-located along the line. Businesses affected by the project have received several million dollars in forgivable loans and other assistance programs.

Two-thirds of the loans from the City of St. Paul went to businesses owned by people of color, according to Nancy Homans, St. Paul's point person for the Central Corridor project. Homans said that's no surprise, considering University Avenue in St. Paul is a magnet for minority entrepreneurs. The loan recipients in the Little Mekong area near University and Western Avenues experienced an average sales loss of about 36 percent during the height of light rail project.

"We believe we were successfully able to target the businesses we were most concerned about -- which were small, independent, minority- or women-owned businesses on the corridor," Homans said.

Of the 206 businesses who received loans, three went out of business, Homans said. Their loans balances were forgiven.

A report released this week by the Asian Economic Development Association documented some of the problems experienced by Little Mekong businesses, ranging from utility problems to basement flooding. The group submitted its findings in response to a study by light rail planners detailing the potential impacts on businesses. A judge ordered the study after community groups, including the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP, sued over the project.

The Met Council says more than 100 projects have been completed or are in development along the light rail corridor from St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood to the West Bank of Minneapolis. They represent $1.7 billion in private investment.

A business compensation program administered by the City of St. Paul doled out $3.5 million of an available $4 million to small businesses disrupted by construction. According to city figures, bars and restaurants that applied for the forgivable loans suffered less of an impact than, say, barbershops and salons. Average monthly sales for bars and restaurants fell 20 percent, while barbershops and salons lost about 43 percent.

But officials caution that these figures only apply to loan applicants who could prove financial hardship -- not all businesses along the entire corridor.

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