Businesses ride out highway construction

Detours and delays deter customers

Photo by Sonya Chechik
Photo by Sonya Chechik

“There are two seasons: winter and construction.”

So goes the common Minnesotan saying. This often holds too true, and most Minneapolitans are used to facing detours in their summer driving.

This summer marked the start of the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s three-year 35W@94 Downtown to Crosstown project, and local businesses are feeling the impact as potential customers are re-routed away from their storefronts or simply discouraged from coming out.

The project, which includes the reconstruction of two-and-a-half miles of freeway and eleven bridges, has drastically changed how Minneapolitans are getting around.

“Honestly, I think all of the major construction projects around the city are affecting business this summer,” Kylene Guse, one of the founders of Gyst Fermentation Bar at 26th & 1st in Whittier, wrote in an email. “Not only is traffic a real challenge but it’s frustrating — so much that people think twice about how much they really want to go places.”

The Guse sisters decide to take a break for the month of July and renovate Gyst instead of pushing through the closure of the nearby 26th Street bridge.

“MnDOT works very hard to have as little impact as it can on local businesses during these projects and sometimes these are difficult, complex projects and sometimes we have to close roads and bridges near businesses,” said Dave Aeikens, the MnDOT communications director for the 35W@94 project.

Photo by Sonya Chechik
Photo by Sonya Chechik

Unlike Gyst, most businesses remain open and look for ways to draw in customers.

Aaron Meyerring of The Electric Fetus said their business was down 20 percent since the Franklin Avenue bridge first closed last September. He said it remained low due to new construction even after part of the bridge re-opened.

Meyerring said they’ve relied on big events to draw in a crowd, such as Record Store Day in April and a weeklong celebration of the store’s 50th anniversary in June.

Hassan Warsame, the owner of the BP Gas Station at Franklin & 3rd, a few blocks from the Fetus, echoed Meyerring’s sentiments. He said sales were down nearly 50 percent because of construction.

“We lost our business and are still concerned about it and how we can get it back,” he said.

Warsame said he made gas prices lower and advertised discounts on items like coffee, donuts and soda.

“It did help [sales] a little bit, but if you don’t sell a lot you can’t regain them,” he said.

Meyerring said the record store had seen the largest decrease in their nine-to-five crowd. It’s no longer realistic for customers to come from downtown on their lunch breaks or wait out evening rush hour by shopping around.

He said the hardest thing about long periods of road construction is that people make alternative routes that might not take them by the business anymore.

“It’s not only getting through the construction, it’s getting those customers to come back and have it be part of their routine again when it’s over with,” he said.

Both Warsame and Meyerring said they had met with city officials and MnDOT regarding the construction.

Aeikens said MnDOT tries to contact as many affected businesses as they can, especially when there are road closures, to talk through detours.

“We try to stay in touch with them as we go through and if there’s issues they stay in touch with us,” he said.

After customers said they didn’t know if they could still come into the stores, Warsame and Meyerring petitioned for “open to local business” signs to be posted on the road blocks and detour signs.

After multiple meetings, MnDOT posted signs at three of the requested locations.

“We work very closely with the businesses to try to make sure that they and their customers are able to manage through our construction so people can find them and business is able to continue,” Aeikens said.

Warsame and Meyerring also said they’ve contacted the city regarding changes in their taxes.  On top of loss of sales from re-routed traffic, both said their businesses have gotten reassessed for higher taxes due to the improvements on the surrounding infrastructure.

“[We] are frustrated because we pay a lot of taxes and nobody is supporting [us]. … We have to pay everything and lose everything,” said Warsame. “I have to cover everything.”

The city’s response

Aeikens said MnDOT also works with businesses on things they can do on their own, such as specialized signs, advertising on their websites or emails with instructions to help customers navigate through construction.

Electric Fetus has even tried to use construction as a theme in advertising. Every Friday, some of the popular new releases are labeled “construction specials” and can be purchased at a discount in store.

“We’re super-fortunate that we have a loyal customer and fan base, this very easily could’ve put a lot of companies under,” Meyerring said.

Clinton Market, previously located on Clinton & 19th in Stevens Square, closed due to loss of business from construction.

Warsame said many of the Clinton Market customers lived on the other side of the Franklin Avenue bridge. When it closed, they no longer had easy access to the market.

Other neighborhood spots remain unaffected by the changes.

Management from Whittier’s Tilt Pinball Bar and Spyhouse Coffee said patrons have expressed frustration with construction but that business remains strong. They thanked their loyal customers for keeping them busy.

Some businesses even see too much traffic as detours route drivers on roads that previously were less busy.

Honeycomb Salon, located at 35th & Nicollet, is one business facing this issue. Millie Rose, a manager at Honeycomb Salon, said there has been a significant increase in traffic on Nicollet.

“Because we’re on such a well-traveled corner we’re not really concerned about [accessibility]. For us, it’s more the general frustration with how long it takes to get everywhere and just how crazy it feels,” Rose said. “I’m not quite sure what the city can do about that.”

She said many clients have struggled to get to their appointments on time, but Honeycomb’s business has remained steady overall.

“There’s definitely an issue of getting here on a planned schedule just because everything takes so much longer,” she said. “There’s so much construction people are just taken aback on where the construction is.”

Rose said MnDOT has visited the salon multiple times to talk through closures and detours and provide handouts for clients on navigating in the city.

“I know MnDOT has been working hard to be sure that closures and everything have been communicated well, but I still think there’s this level of confusion among (people), at least our clients,” said Rose.

Aeikens said MnDOT aims to help businesses through construction as best they can by providing general signage, like what was requested by BP and Electric Fetus, handouts, as described by Rose, and regular check-ins.

“I get it. The road’s got to be built. And believe me, I want new infrastructure,” Meyerring said. “All I can really ask for is when you close off access to a business or somebody’s livelihood that you would make it a priority to try to finish that as fast as possible.”

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