Reporting Holly Wagner
ST. PAUL (WCCO) — Light rail construction along University Avenue is on schedule, but the work has come at a cost. It’s taken a toll on many of the businesses along that street.
Around Valentine’s Day, Chocolat Celeste in St. Paul is approaching what should be one of its busiest times of year.
“Chocolate is a happy business. People come here to be happy. I want to be happy,” said owner Mary Leonard.
She is hoping she’ll feel the love from her customers this Valentine’s Day. The last year and a half has left her with a lot of heartache.
“It really is almost like starting over,” said Leonard.
She moved her shop off University Ave. and Highway 280 when light rail construction got underway because she lost customer parking. The move cost her a lot of business.
“A lot of people thought we closed permanently,” she said.
Without the traffic she was forced to cut two full-time employees.
“Our revenue is about half of what it was previously, but I haven’t been able to take home a salary,” she said.
Leonard is not alone. According to the University Avenue Business Association, 25 percent of the shops and store fronts along the stretch of road under construction on University Ave. are vacant.
President Jack McCann said for this are it should be around 8 percent.
“Some people took a large hit and they’re still here and they have three more years to stay here to realize the benefit of the rail. And that’s gonna be difficult,” said McCann.
He said a lot of people have avoided the area because it was such a mess. Currently, he said it is easier to maneuver.
“People are rolling through here, this is not a hard place to get around,” said McCann.
He expects people will slowly come back and a new million dollar marketing campaign funded by Corridor Project could give business a boost, too.
Leonard said she’s already changed her strategy and she’s hoping Cupid will help her out.
“We hope customers will start coming back (on Valentine’s Day),” she said.
Leonard has tried some new things to keep her business going. She’s been using social media and she recently did a Groupon to help drive people to her website. She is also doing specialized chocolates for corporations.
One of the difficulties has been letting people know where she’s located; just off Cleveland and University Ave. which turns into Transfer Road, near the Amtrak station.
The new marketing project is expected to start sometime in the next few weeks when construction picks up again. They’ll be spending $1.2 million to help bring people back to the area.