The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

Roadblocks to Progress: Summer Construction and Small Business Struggles

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Penn Ave and 53rd St, a couple blocks from my house

A few years ago, I was introduced to a daunting conflict between small business and government. My friend Harry brought me to a Caribbean café in St. Paul, Minnesota, located off a central corridor (University Avenue) that was undergoing major renovations to become a light-rail line. As you know from previous posts, I’m a strong supporter of public transit, especially in my own city. However, what I found out that evening at Caribe Caribbean Bistro made me rethink my enthusiasm. The thirty-seat restaurant had seen a serious downturn in business since construction began on their portion of University Avenue. Speaking with one of the owners, my friend and I learned that the lack of access and parking was turning away numerous customers away, and that they didn’t think Caribe could survive this indefinite spell of isolation.

Harry, who worked for the University Avenue Business Association, offered the owner a small business loan to potentially tide them over, but even this was not enough. The owners also attempted a Kickstarter campaign to help them relocate their business (a campaign which I supported). However, they were unable to obtain the necessary funding for that. My plans to return to the café a few months later were never realized because it had to close down.

Conservative economists might explain, calculatedly, that such a business wasn’t providing goods or services that the community desired and thus its closure was merely part of the market process. Yet when we throw in the government’s implementation of a light-rail line, the issue becomes more complex—and our conservative friends are more likely to rethink their analysis. Meanwhile, liberal rhetoric often idealistically tells us that both of these entities can win: that small businesses are, of course, the fabric of our cities; that governments only tangle with corporations that pollute the environment or mistreat their workers; that the public and private sectors can achieve their goals equally in America. But, like the shiny new highways that ripped through dozens of neighborhoods during the 1950s, the march of progress—as deemed by the government—sometimes clashes with business interests.

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Notice the deserted street behind the sign

Every summer across the nation, the march continues as roads and sidewalks are torn up to be replaced with better ones. Two of my favorite restaurants, Butter Bakery (which I wrote about last month) and Café Maude (a remarkable bar & eatery near my house) are both struggling through a summer of road construction at their own storefronts. Their small business districts have been supplied with big orange signs from the city that read “BUSINESSES OPEN. BUY LOCAL.” As you might guess though, that sign cannot replace the daily flow of traffic that is so integral to the survival of a store. It is astonishingly easy for people to cast off a small business when they are faced with even the slightest detour due to construction of a transit line or road.

In my own work, whether I’m leading a class for children or hosting a workshop on interfaith engagement, I try to consistently consider long-term effects (or that overused buzzword, “sustainability”). It’s rarely worthwhile to invest in something unless you’re going to make a lasting impact—and in this regard, I am wholly supportive of projects like the light-rail extensions throughout the Twin Cities and the improvement of crumbling roadways. Indeed, I believe that in order to address issues like poverty and disconnectedness, we must focus the bulk of our efforts on long-term projects like this rather than short-term solutions like soup kitchens and one-time fundraisers.

But how should we handle situations where the long-term goals of one entity clash with the short-term, day-to-day existence of another? Sure, once the construction is finished, profits might actually increase beyond their initial levels for a business that is directly on a light-rail line or a brand new street. For now though, it’s hard to ask a business owner in an already-fragile economy to just “hold out” until that golden day comes. It’s like telling a young single mother that she’ll be better off if she quits her three part-time jobs and instead attends college full time. In a couple years, she’ll have her degree and ideally be able to get a higher paying job, yet realistically, taking two years off from work is an unthinkable plan when she has children to support on a daily basis.

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The hulking shapes of construction vehicles dwarf our local hardware store, restaurants, gas station and dry cleaners.

Since May 2013, Dan, Butter’s owner, has been keeping a blog about the construction in front of his bakery. He wrote recently, “Each week brings a new perspective on this journey from pot-hole ridden street to beautiful new Nicollet Avenue.” That upbeat tone and acknowledgement of the long-term goals impresses me, but my trips to Butter also reveal far more empty tables than the restaurant had before road construction.

I don’t have a solution to these conflicts between small business and government, short-term and long-term needs. Perhaps the solution is not to frame it as a conflict at all, but rather as a symbiotic relationship, knowing that both entities make each other and their communities better off when they can both achieve their goals. If that’s the case—and I believe it is—our governments need to work harder to ensure the security of small businesses during construction periods. Maybe we need opportunities for them to sell their goods elsewhere. Maybe we need higher grants or loans to tide them through these phases. Maybe their input should be more intensively sought before such projects are undertaken. With enough support, I hope our local businesses could make it through these rough patches and onto the new pathways being paved in front of them.

How do you think we should balance long-term community projects and day-to-day small business needs?

Here are a couple other resources about the light-rail construction on University Avenue in St. Paul:  Report: Change in the Number of Occupied Storefronts along University Avenue, 1st  Quarter 2011, “St Paul: On University Avenue light rail brings anxiety,” and more recently “Central Corridor: Railcar makes a successful test run of route.”

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2 thoughts on “Roadblocks to Progress: Summer Construction and Small Business Struggles

  1. Pingback: What Makes a Building Work? | The City Space

  2. Pingback: The Way You Move | The City Space

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