Stop Your Railing!

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

The business lasted until May.

"We were trying to establish a foothold," he says. "There's no question that, in doing that, you need everything to go your way."

In retrospect, he has decided that light rail was just one factor in his eatery's demise. Phoenix is a town where people would rather visit a chain restaurant, he claims, adding that a bar would have fared better in his old location.

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

Rapoport says it's wonderful that Phoenix is spending money on light rail to at least try to bring more people to downtown. He added that the city "desperately" needs help.

Anyone who says that weathering light-rail construction won't pay off is "just talking out of their hat — nobody's going to know until 10 years from now," Rapoport says. "Some guys like me are going to get kicked down, but that's tough."

Sometimes one man's misfortune is another's opportunity.

Bill Smith, co-owner of Stoudemire's Downtown on Washington Street, knows firsthand that the construction has been brutal. It's "crushing" downtown nightlife, and many people who brave the scene once won't come back, he says.

Yet he's preparing to open a pub this coming year in the space Rapoport vacated.

Clearly, it won't be easy. But "the growing pains are for the greater good," Smith says. "I'm willing to take a two-year loss to have a 30-year gain."

In two years, the trains will be running, the Phoenix Convention Center expansion will be done, and a new 1,000-room Sheraton hotel should be ready for business.

"There are no other big cities you can go into now and get this opportunity," Smith says, adding that the cost would be unimaginable to put a 10,000-square-foot restaurant next to a large office building in San Francisco. "If you want to be ahead of the curve in downtown Phoenix, now is the time."

There is similar enthusiasm uptown as well.

Smelly Dog, a self-serve dog wash on the northeast corner of Seventh Avenue and Camelback Road, has also managed to thrive as the jackhammers and backhoes rattled the streets outside. It opened in May 2005, post-construction. Owners Sean Kirk and Rob Valenzuela say their customers seek them out, and that light-rail work hasn't affected them a bit.

Their business is so good that it spills customers over to Mixture, Mike Hale's small furniture and home-accessory shop that opened a few weeks ago.

"I'll be excited to see how much business we're going to get" from light rail, says Thomas Smith, manager of the Fez bar and restaurant at 3815 North Central Avenue. "We opened our business a year ago — this restaurant's been going strong since Day One."

You, the customer, carry most of the responsibility for preserving the businesses you like that are trying to weather the light-rail storm.

Now is the time to dive into that turbulent sea of dirt piles and traffic jams and support your favorite eatery, retail shop or chiropractor. The businesses want you to pay a visit. With the emphasis on pay.

But if the parking problems are too much for you, don't worry. There are customers who are willing to frequent the construction-ravaged areas, no matter what. Always have been. So if the construction is over when Metro Rail officials say it will be and the trains are running in two years, odds are, the place you love will still be in business.

The light-rail project came about partly because it was feared that, without it, the densest part of the Valley would face gridlock. There was also the desire to help poor or disabled non-drivers. And there was also the belief that light rail would be a cool amenity that would spark more interest in downtown Phoenix. For instance, it will be easy for all those ASU students to venture into Phoenix's urban core.

Light rail isn't perfect.

There are no plans for it to go to the airport.

It's obscenely expensive — nearly $4 billion for the first 47 miles. The operating cost alone is $28 million a year, and riders will only pay a quarter of that. It may never pay for itself.

Even with the planned extensions, the Valley's north-south corridors will be poorly served by light rail. Valley residents far from the metro area's core will have little need to board light rail except as a novelty ride.

But at full capacity, Metro says its system will move as many people per hour as a six-lane freeway.

The extensions, forecast to open from 2012 to 2025, will shoot the trains west to 79th Avenue on Interstate 10 and north of Paradise Valley up State Route 51.

And, for businesses, there are all those potential dividends Mayor Gordon talks about.

One thing is for sure: There's no use bitching now.

Voters approved light rail, and now it's here to stay.

Jennifer Houde recently closed her downtown shop, Greta's Pet Boutique, to get back into practicing law. She lives in central Phoenix and looks forward to using the light-rail line. Her shop, which opened in March 2005, had always been successful despite the construction.

"We all had enough notice [that light rail was coming] — like years," she says, laughing. "I'm sure there are some businesses that are hurting, and that's too bad. I know I always try to personally shop [at downtown stores] to help support them. And if they weren't prepared, then I don't know what else to say."

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