Businesspeople on LRT line warily await opening day

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June 21, 2004 // UPDATED 2:14 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Battered by rail construction, not every Downtown business owner is an optimist, but most say it can only get better

Rosenthal Furniture owner Rosie Lebewitz jokes about wearing a T-shirt on light-rail transit's opening day that says: "We survived the LRT."

Some might say the furniture store at 22 N. 5th St. occupies prime real estate. The fourth-generation shop sits next to the Warehouse District Station -- LRT's Downtown starting and ending point.

When local dignitaries and other riders board the LRT for the first time this Saturday, June 26, Rosenthal Furniture will be in the direct line of all the news camera gathered for opening day.

But Lebewitz isn't thrilled. Asked for her thoughts on light rail's debut, she said: "It can't get any worse."

For Rosenthal Furniture and the other handful of retailers along Downtown's 5th Street, enduring the more than three years of construction for LRT has been a hardship. Some are optimistic the line will bring in more customers; most are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Lebewitz is among those who doubts that LRT will do anything for her bottom line. She predicted few customers would ride the train to her store and then board the train with a heavy piece of furniture.

Most people drop in and park nearby, she said, but the store has lost parking and quick access by car from 5th Street. The new LRT platform outside the store also obscures her store's visibility, shielding its sign from passersby. (She said she is prevented by historic guidelines from adding a taller sign to her building).

Before construction started in the spring of 2002, the store was on pace to do record sales, she said. But when crews started tearing up 5th Street, sales quickly dipped.

"Within 30 days [of construction] it was almost like we weren't here," she said. "It's been a long, awful haul."

Her store endured two floods related to light-rail construction. The first flood destroyed furniture in the store's basement and cost her nearly $700,000, she said.

She said she had to press for compensation for the damage to her business. "We didn't see any money for months and months."

With construction troubles behind her, Lebewitz is trying to stay optimistic. She said she might launch in advertising campaign with the slogan: "The rail starts here" or "Ride the rail to Rosenthal's."

She even jokes about placing a giant gorilla atop her store to raise her visibility.

A few doors down, Sal Elazab, owner of the pizza shop Sky Caf/ and Downtown Tobacco 8-10 N. 5th St., shared similar gripes about LRT construction.

He said business has lagged significantly since crews started working on the line. He has laid off six people since work began on light rail.

Sales have dropped 40 to 50 percent, he said.

"We used to have tremendous foot traffic," Elazab said, standing in his pizza shop recently.

The customer flow has since slowed to a trickle, he said.

People used to frequently drive up to the pizza shop after bar close to grab a pizza, but now the LRT platform stands in the way.

Elazab said he hopes things will turn around when the trains start departing.

"We've been waiting for this day for three years," he said.

A few business owners on 5th Street, however, had some positive things to say about light-rail's arrival.

Barry Hamlin, owner of Hamlin's Caf/, 512 Nicollet Mall, said he's excited to ride the rail and might keep the caf/ open on Saturdays when service starts.

He hopes the train sends more customers his way. "It will bring in more people, I think. I guess the proof will be in the pudding," he said.

Hamlin said business has been down in recent years, but he doesn't blame LRT construction. Other factors have contributed to slow sales, such as the general economic downturn since Sept. 11, 2001, fewer Downtown office workers and new restaurants on Nicollet Mall, he said.

Omar Sakr, owner of the Trieste Caf/, 10 S. 5th St., said he predicted business would pick up the first few weeks of LRT when people take their first trips, and then again when full service starts to the Mall of America in December.

"I hope we get really good business, but we don't know yet," he said. "This is something new for Minnesotans."

He added that the car-free Nicollet Mall would have been the ideal spot for light rail and a more inviting place for riders to catch the LRT.

Laurine Lewis, a seamstress and owner since 1983 of the tailor shop Sew Biz, 75 S. 5th St., has managed to stay in business despite construction and the trend toward business casual. She is also optimistic about the LRT.

"I'm looking forward to it and construction ending," Lewis said, as she sat at her sewing machine, tending to a pale blue sundress.

Her small tailor shop sits street level in the Marquette Building, framed by a stretch of scaffolding across from the Nicollet Mall LRT platform.

She said she hopes the LRT lines spurs more development on 5th Street, which is relatively quiet compared to other Downtown streets.

Several passersby interviewed along 5th Street on a recent afternoon spoke with indifference about LRT's launch. A couple of interviewees declined to provide their names for publication, but said they wouldn't ride the train because they live in northern suburbs.

The Hiawatha Light Rail Line runs south -- from Downtown to the Mall of America in Bloomington. Until December, the trains' last stop will be at Ft. Snelling. Full service to the airport and the Mall of America is expected by year's end.

Chris Petersen, a technician for IBM who works at the Xcel Energy building, 414 Nicollet Mall, said he'd maybe ride the train once or twice. He lives in Brooklyn Park and rarely travels during the day for his work.

While taking a smoke break near the line's intersection with Marquette Avenue, Shayne Cole, an office intern with the federal Job Corps program, said he didn't plan on riding the LRT -- at least not regularly.

He lives in St. Paul and doubts it would be convenient.

"I don't think I'll really use it," he said.