Stop Your Railing!

It's six o'clock on a Friday evening, and Dennis Chiesa hasn't seen a customer in his record shop for more than three hours.

The cozy little store, Tracks in Wax, is nestled in an aging strip mall between a hair salon and a psychic, just south of Camelback Road on Central Avenue. It's a niche retail business that differs from Borders and Sam Goodies by selling mostly vinyl records, and it's got a reputation, Valleywide, as a good place to find old punk or classic rock for the turntable.

The 25-year-old business is crammed with record bins and appears maxed out for space; the covers of albums and posters provide a swirl of eye candy for browsers. A manic saxophone wails on the jazz album Chiesa's currently spinning.

"Once rush hour starts, I don't know why I'm here," says Chiesa, the store's owner. He's a short man in his 50s with a substantial paunch, a kindly face, and black hair combed straight back.

His sales are half of what they were by this time last year, he says.

Chiesa blames this problem on light-rail construction. Much of the problem, anyway.

All he really knows is that few people are coming into his store in late November, weeks after the cooler weather has ushered in what's usually a hopped-up retail season.

Central Phoenix has always been a tough place to do business, partly because the metro area's population is so spread out. But the notion that light rail may be culpable for the downturn is hardly the product of an unhinged mind.

Outside the store, Central Avenue has been narrowed to one lane in each direction, the slow-moving traffic guided by thickets of orange-and-white hazard markers.

The old strip mall is at the northern end of one section of torn-up road. Farther south on Central, just west of Steele Indian School Park, hundreds of feet of brown-black steel rail line are stacked six feet high and just waiting to get laid.

No doubt some northbound motorists clench when they make the right turn into the strip mall just past the foot-and-a-half-deep, unfenced trench.

Even tougher driving challenges exist along the 20-mile path of the future light-rail train system. To motorists, the whole route has been an annoying patch of hell since construction began in earnest last year.

We've been bombarded with barricades and signs, shifting lanes, road closures and epic traffic snarls. Daytime movement around the Valley's urban cores has become a vein-popping experience that takes twice as long as usual and requires extra planning to avoid being late to work or for appointments.

But while the construction problems have just been aggravation for most of us, they have been extremely costly for businesses along the light-rail line, especially those that rely on walk-in customers.

Judging by estimates of restaurant, hotel and retail shop owners along the line, plus a report by the City of Phoenix, businesses have lost millions of dollars — collectively — as potential and regular customers avoid them during the mess.

From Tempe to Phoenix, most business owners interviewed for this article say they are suffering losses. Their revenue is down 7 to 70 percent of what they believe they should have seen in 2006. Though their estimates cannot be verified reliably, their main point is sound: It's a tougher environment than ever in which to do business right now.

Some owners, like David Wimberly of the George & Dragon English Restaurant and Pub down the street from Tracks in Wax, have been complaining bitterly.

True, it has looked like a war zone for the past few weeks outside George & Dragon. Besides the construction activity, the Autumn Court restaurant next door burned down after being abandoned by its owners a few months before. Blackened debris was strewn over its parking lot.

Wimberly says light-rail construction has brought sales down in his pub by 60 percent, and he can't see how much longer he can stay in business. He's one of the people calling for more handouts from the city and Metro rail to help him stay afloat.

"The worst part — we're not getting any compensation from the city," says Wimberly. "There should be no taxes on any light-rail people. We pay seven-and-a-half grand a month for taxes; my mortgage is 10. That would be the most fair — no taxes until this is done."

Such a move would be above and beyond what other light-rail-building cities have done. As with other urban innovations, Phoenix put off light rail until most other major Western cities had embraced it. But waiting has its advantages: Local officials knew how to apply just the right amount of aid to give small businesses a fighting chance.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern