St. Paul businesses say Metro Transit construction notice lacking

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Tameka Jones was getting ready to hire two new employees to work at Lip Esteem, her plant-based beauty supply store, when a notice in her mailbox derailed those plans.

Just six days before construction began on a new bus rapid transit line, Jones was notified that Selby Avenue, where her 1-year-old store sits, would be closed for some 30 days during her busiest season of the year.

Business owners in the historic Rondo neighborhood at the intersection of Selby Avenue and Victoria Street have dealt with a closed road, inaccessible sidewalks and a slew of other problems over the last month for the upcoming Metro Transit B Line with little to no support from local officials, Jones said.

“If I would have known about the construction, I wouldn’t have invested so much into this season,” she said. Late spring is usually prime time for Lip Esteem with prom and graduation, Jones said, but this year, she worries that the product she has already invested in won’t sell due to the decreased foot traffic outside her store.

Jones said nearly half of her revenue comes from in-person sales at her brick-and-mortar store. On an average weekday, she said the store will pull in around $350 but during construction that number has shrunk to around $60 a day.

“They know what their paychecks will look like,” Jones said, gesturing to the construction workers right outside her store’s window.

Jones is now pivoting to pop-up events and increasing online advertising. Fewer customers in the store also mean fewer employees, she said. Not only is she not able to hire new workers, but her current employees are at risk of receiving fewer hours.

Prior to the construction, Jones said she thought she would be 33% over in sales and now she is deciding which parts of her business to put on pause.

“You know it’s going to affect our business in a negative way and you have no way to support us,” Jones said of the city and Metro Transit.

Katie Roth, Metro Transit’s director of arterial bus rapid transit projects, said in an email that outreach efforts to inform nearby businesses began more than a year ago and included mailings, door knocking, newsletters and press events.

“We utilize multiple efforts to reach businesses so that they have advance notice, and sometimes we have to return multiple times when we door knock. We strive to connect with business as far in advance as possible,” she said.

Construction of new stations for the B Line, a bus rapid transit service that will follow the same general path as the current Route 21, was funded by the Minnesota Legislature in 2020.

 ‘No one said anything’

Erinn Mueller, a general manager for vegan restaurant J. Selby’s, which also sits on Selby and Victoria, said the restaurant learned about the upcoming construction six days before it began, when they saw a sign outside indicating Selby Avenue would be closed starting May 22.

“I frantically started calling to find out what was going on,” she said.

In January, owners of the Herbivorous Butcher, Aubry and Kale Walch, took over J. Selby’s. Mueller, who is also general manager of the Herbivorous Butcher, said they could have missed other notifications of the construction since they had only been the owners for six months, but noted their landlord hadn’t heard about the construction either.

What added to the shock, Mueller said, was that the restaurant had already been working with the city to get its Selby Avenue patio permit renewed and expanded so they could serve alcohol on the patio.

Not only is the patio no longer a possibility due to its proximity to the new bus station, but the restaurant is now storing about $5,000 worth of patio equipment it already invested in.

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