Stop Your Railing!

Sure, light-rail construction is painful, but it will be worth it in the long haul

While making headlines, Barron's firing had no discernible effect on the light-rail work.

A few months before, in May, news outlets had reported that the project's work schedule was four to six months behind.

Metro soon announced it had a plan to make up the lost time and still insists the trains will be running by the end of 2008.

Matt Roussel
Dennis Chiesa, owner of Tracks in Wax on Central Avenue
Martha Strachan
Dennis Chiesa, owner of Tracks in Wax on Central Avenue

While Metro and its partner cities can't prevent the construction from possibly sinking places like 101 Bistro or Tracks in Wax, observers like Smith at the community colleges say the Valley is doing a good job helping businesses.

Complaints that have come up in the year and a half of construction usually see a fast resolution, says Tom Callow, Phoenix light-rail coordinator.

The Phoenix City Council set aside more than $2 million for programs to help businesses stay alive through the three-year construction period. Businesses that sign up get free marketing and financial advice.

Most owners of retail and restaurant businesses interviewed by New Times said they took advantage of that service.

The blue signs and A-frames all over town begging customers to visit stores during construction come from Metro, as does the "Metro Max" discount program, which gives businesses free advertising.

Metro set aside $2.5 million for a program that pits contractors against one another to win cash incentives for excellence in handling complaints from businesses — and the business owners decide which contractors win. About half the money has been paid out so far, says Howard Steere, Metro's public involvement manager.

Officials learned many of their tricks from the experiences of Portland and Salt Lake City, flying in business owners from those cities last year to discuss ways to ensure the health of Valley enterprises affected by the construction.

Salt Lake City's initial TRAX light-rail construction in 1999 was a case study in how to royally screw over downtown businesses. Streets and sidewalks were scraped down to dirt from one side of the street to the other, and major throughways were closed for eight blocks.

The rumor mill soon had locals believing downtown was totally closed, says Tony Weller, owner of the 77-year-old Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore at 254 South Main Street in Salt Lake City. The track stop is nice now that it's done, but it "brought me to the brink of bankruptcy," he says.

To survive, Weller blew through a nest egg of a few hundred thousand dollars, and borrowed even more money against the property.

Communication is the key to keeping the frustration levels down for both businesses and their customers, officials here learned. Many owners interviewed had the phone numbers of officials from Metro, the city or a contractor at their fingertips.

That kind of attention has fostered goodwill up and down the light-rail corridor.

Joe Weaver of Stuff Antiques, 4206 North Central Avenue, says that while he opposes light rail, officials do seem to be trying to keep people happy.

During the monsoon season, Weaver noticed construction workers outside his store shoving debris piles against a nearby storm drain, and he worried that his building might get flooded in a storm. He called a woman from Metro, who said the problem would be fixed that day.

Come closing time, it still hadn't been done. So he called the woman again, and she called the work-site supervisor.

"The woman told him he had to do it. He got out with his shovel and he moved it clear," says Weaver, obviously impressed.

When utility relocation stopped water from flowing at George & Dragon for eight hours one evening, owner David Wimberly says the contractor dropped off two portable toilets and seven cases of bottled water.

"And that's brilliant," Wimberly says.

Nothing reveals faith in what light rail could mean to Phoenix like the new businesses opening at ground zero of light-rail construction.

"I think this downtown is just waiting to explode," says Barry Schoeneman, owner of the Men's Apparel Club at 204 North Central Avenue.

Schoeneman, who says he used to own manufacturing businesses in Chicago and is now selling suits here, opened last year "when there was nothing but rubble and trucks and everything else."

"I knew this was going to be like a bump in the road," Schoeneman says. "It hasn't hurt me, particularly. And now I'm here."

Schoeneman, like many others, believes light rail won't give Phoenix the soul it's lacking. But it will help.

People just need a reason to keep coming downtown, he says. He wants to see art shows, fairs, car shows — anything that makes the place look more alive, especially on weekends.

"This is like a palette that's empty," he says.

Former downtown business owner John Rapoport says someday he'll hop on a light-rail train, drive past his old business at 130 East Washington Street, A Taste of N'Awlins, shake his head and think of what might have been.

Rapoport is a lawyer who also owned restaurants in the New York City area. He opened the Cajun food cafe in January 2005.

"I didn't fully comprehend how bad it was going to be," says Rapoport, who lives in Chandler. "There were times when light rail virtually blocked the access to my restaurant. You'd have to be dying of hunger to want to get in there."

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