City supports businesses near bridge collapse

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November 12, 2007 // UPDATED 3:13 pm - November 20, 2007
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

Key North owners Gwen Engelbert and Katie Greene have seen a lot more vehicles passing their East Hennepin Avenue storefront this fall.

That additional exposure might benefit the specialty clothing shop and other East Bank businesses — if anyone ever stopped to shop, that is.

Traffic detours around the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge bring more Downtown commuters past the shops and restaurants north and south of the city core. But traffic is so tangled during the morning and evening rush hours few want to get out of their cars, business owners report.

“I have very regular customers who don’t want to come to Northeast anymore,” Engelbert said.

On Monday, city leaders visited East Bank stores impacted by the Aug. 1 bridge collapse. The talks with business owners brought attention to their stores ahead of the holiday shopping season, a critical time for many businesses.

Mike Christenson, director of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED), said city officials met with about 70 business owners near the bridge within two weeks after the collapse. Many reported a drop-off in sales after Aug. 1, typically around 40 percent, Christenson said.

He said the city offered low-interest loans though the Small Business Administration, and 11 of the businesses accepted.

The owners of Key North, 514 E. Hennepin Ave., turned the offer down. They didn’t want to saddle the young business with extra debt, Greene said.

Monday was Key North’s last day on East Hennepin Avenue before a move to 515 First Ave. N.E., a little over a block away. Greene said she and Engelbert were considering a new location for the store before the collapse, but the subsequent downturn in sales was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Traffic played a major role, they said.

Christenson said the I-35W bridge carried about 140,000 vehicles a day. Since the collapse, traffic on the main detour, Highway 280, has increased by about 60,000 vehicles per day.

That means up to 80,000 vehicles are traveling on alternate detours, many of them through the neighborhoods north and south of Downtown.

“No area has been hit harder with new traffic than Northeast,” Christenson said.

City Council Member Diane Hofstede, who toured Key North and two other East Bank businesses Monday with Christenson, said some commuters may be discovering small, independently owned businesses along the detour routes for the first time.

Hofstede said that exposure may ultimately be a boon for businesses along the East Bank. Still, traffic problems may persist for another year, until the anticipated completion of a replacement bridge in December 2008.

Margaret McDonald, owner of Let’s Cook at 330 E. Hennepin Ave., said the challenge for East Bank business owners was to attract passing commuters “when they have time to shop, eat and play.”

McDonald and other business owners said traffic snarls clear up in between rush hours and on weekends.

At City Salvage, 505 First Ave. N.E., business was down about 80 percent in September, owner John Eckley reported.

“It’s coming back,” Eckley said. “This month has been pretty good.”

He said his architectural salvage business was hit by the double-whammy of the bridge collapse and the national home foreclosure crisis, which took a toll on his online sales.

“It kind of crept up,” he said of the downturn in sales. “It wasn’t an instantaneous thing.”

Eckley remained upbeat about the future of the East Bank and its ability to rebound. He said East Bank art galleries were hit particularly hard by the bridge collapse, but also noted a new restaurant, the Red Stag, was set to open on his block.

“I’m confident in this neighborhood,” Eckley said.