St. Paul business owners who've suffered during the massive light-rail construction project are hopeful their bottom lines will start to perk up now that construction is winding down.
The Central Corridor line connecting downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis won't start running until 2014. But heavy construction finished this month, with 18 stations mostly along University Avenue all structurally ready. Work for the next year will include installing electrical substations and wiring, testing the actual train cars and training drivers.
The Pioneer Press reported Sunday that since major light-rail construction began in March 2011, 70 businesses closed along the 11-mile corridor while another 16 relocated elsewhere. But another 86 businesses opened, and the Metropolitan Council reports the project has helped seed $2 billion in new private and public investments so far, including many new housing units.
"It's a pretty remarkable story about growth," said Sue Haigh, chairwoman of the Met Council. "I think that what we're seeing is the rail line is attracting the market. Development is really around station areas. I think that it's very good news for these communities along the line — they'll have access to housing and jobs. I'm not sure you'll find another place in the metro region where you're going to see this type of investment."
It cannot come soon enough for business owners who've had to endure two years of heavy construction: torn-up sidewalks and shuttered street entrances, confusing detours and parking nightmares.
"I think pretty much anything is going to be better than the last year," said Sara Szabo, manager of Twin Cities Reptiles in St. Paul. "The further (rail development) gets along, the better it's going to be. Last year was hard. We watched neighbor after neighbor fold shop and leave. Now, the majority of construction is done."
In 2013, 18 residential and commercial-retail developments are slated to begin construction or have entered planning stages on the line. Those projects combined will offer nearly 2,300 new housing units and 109,000 square feet of commercial and retail space. Haigh said the light rail will accommodate easier transit-based commuting between the downtown job centers and the University of Minnesota, a benefit that the cities will be able to market nationwide.
New destinations like a planned St. Paul Saints stadium as well as job providers, including a light rail train-car maintenance facility, are popping up near the St. Paul end of the line, in the Lowertown neighborhood just east of downtown. Affordable housing units in the works for seniors, struggling youth and workers are all in the works
While Twin Cities Reptiles held on, some of its neighbors weren't so lucky. A coffee shop and an ethnic restaurant nearby both closed; the owners of Sharrett's Liquors, in business since 1977, were very worried about the future but so far have held on.
"It seems to be a little better. People are complaining less, and they seem to be able to get to our store," said Edward Kline, a store manager. "The biggest thing has been the loss of parking along University Avenue."
Page 2 of 2 - In Lowertown, where preliminary light-rail work started in 2009, Son Truong has struggled to keep his restaurant Senor Wong afloat after opening in 2008. He took out a $20,000 forgivable loan from the city of St. Paul targeted to businesses affected by rail construction, but his struggles have continued thanks in part to an adjacent street improvement project. The city's loans are "forgiven," or converted to grants, at a gradual rate; the principal disappears if the business remains open along the corridor for five years.
"I lost that in one month alone," Truong said of his loan.
He hopes he's there when the first passengers board the train in 2014, but is not sure he will be.
"For the first couple years, I was very optimistic, very for this. I still am," Truong said. "But construction is pushing me to the breaking point."