St. Paul businesses say Metro Transit construction notice lacking
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.
“No one said anything,” Mueller said.
Over the last month, J. Selby’s has also had to close on three separate occasions because of a pipe burst farther down Selby Avenue, Mueller said. They were told the pipe burst was not related to B Line construction, but it did cause the restaurant to lose sales and its staff to lose hours.
Herbie Butcher’s, also managed by Mueller, was affected by construction last summer in South Minneapolis, Mueller said. Throughout that experience, Mueller said the city over-communicated with her team and stopped into the shop five times in the three months before construction began to keep them in the loop.
“This was the complete opposite,” Mueller said.
‘If they had told me’
Of the businesses located at the intersection, newest among them is the Tooth Fairy Candy Store, which opened on April 26.
“I have no data to say how egregiously this is affecting business,” owner Aretta-Rie Johnson said of the construction. The Tooth Fairy is her first venture into retail, which she started to give young Black girls entrepreneurship experience.
Although she was told about two weeks before the construction started, Johnson said that didn’t make much of a difference.
“I had signs in my windows for two months advertising my opening date,” Johnson said. “If they had told me, ‘This is going to affect you adversely,’ then I would have re-thought the whole thing.”
Johnson said the construction is affecting her business in a variety of ways that she never saw coming, like missing postal deliveries because they cannot access her front door and having to throw out product because it wasn’t purchased before its expiration date.
In its first month, the Tooth Fairy was doing around $300 a day in sales and now Johnson said some days they only make $25.
Johnson said she wishes the city or Metro Transit would have offered some sort of construction stimulus for the affected businesses to apply for. “Something to help us stay afloat,” she said.
Metro B Line
The B Line will run along Lake Street in Minneapolis and Marshall and Selby avenues in St. Paul, according to its project page.
Construction east of Hiawatha Avenue is underway with work west of Hiawatha beginning next spring. Service is expected to begin late next year.
Based on what Mueller’s been told, Selby Avenue is scheduled to open back up as soon as Thursday. Though she said she hasn’t received an update since construction began.
Mueller said she is still unsure if the sidewalks will be done by then, adding, “The sidewalks are almost more important than the road.”
Even with all of the unexpected challenges, Jones said she still supports new, accessible transit.
“Improvements are awesome,” Jones said. “I just wish I was informed and supported and felt like a valued member of the community.”