Loop Trolley construction puts strain on small businesses, prompting fight for survival

The Delmar Loop, a popular stretch of commercial blocks near the Washington University campus that draws crowds from all areas of the city, has experienced significant change in the past several years. Its latest phase of change, however, has local business owners wary of their future on the Loop.

The Loop Trolley, a $51 million-plus 2.2-mile streetcar system, will run along Delmar Boulevard and DeBaliviere Avenue, spanning from the University City Library to the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park, and will make stops at 10 different locations.

Business owners with especially unique establishments said their business was not affected by Trolley construction, but others reported losses. Although the city of St. Louis and the Loop Special Business District offered grants to business owners to offset the loss of revenue due to construction, some business owners said they received only limited amounts of money.

Lately, construction-induced chaos along the Delmar Loop has left community members and business owners alike wondering: what will the immediate and lasting effects of the Trolley be?

In particular, new and small businesses that do not have an established clientele or a large overhead have been struggling to stay afloat since Trolley construction began in March of 2015.

Mark Strahm, general manager of Rocket Fizz, lost approximately $100,000 during a six-month period when construction limited both foot traffic and parking outside of his business.

“We’re a fairly new business. We haven’t even been open for two years, and for us it was a major blow. At this point, we’re just trying to stay afloat,” Strahm said. “Established businesses have had a chance to build up finances, and, you know, they have a better chance of making it through. New businesses are more vulnerable to this type of thing.”

Joe Edwards, owner of Blueberry Hill, an iconic Loop hotspot and established business, believes that the costs are worth the future benefits—Edwards has spearheaded the Loop Trolley efforts over the past two decades.

“Is it inconvenient at times? Yes. Is it pretty cool for the long term future of a livable, walkable, bikeable neighborhood in St. Louis? It’s very meaningful,” Edwards said. “We made it through the I-64/40 shutdown for two years. We made it through the Forest Park Parkway total shutdown for about a year, and this is very minor compared to that.”

Edwards said that any business closings are unrelated to the construction and that such claims are “very disingenuous.” He added that others might have a “landlord or rent” problem, continuing on to say that “the Trolley construction did affect business a little bit in the later parts of summer, like in August, but not to a huge degree.”

In 2011, an extensive, 185-page Environmental Assessment, (EA) prepared in part by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments and submitted to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), projected the possible effects of initial construction on local businesses.

“Some restaurants that currently have outdoor dining areas might be affected due to sidewalk closures. Every attempt would be made to keep the access to businesses open during construction,” the report reads.

Jerry Blair, director of transportation at East-West Gateway Council, which is the group responsible for planning and designing the Loop Trolley, believes that the construction has not had a major impact on businesses. He felt that the closing of segments of the street resulted only in a slight inconvenience and that few people parked on Delmar Boulevard in the first place.

Despite Blair’s perceptions and Edward’s sentiments, many business owners on the Delmar Loop, like Strahm, have suffered from the construction, and the project has been anything but a slight inconvenience.

Ryan French, operator partner of Tavolo V Italian Restaurant, noted that his business has suffered from the Loop Trolley project. The lack of foot traffic has, according to French, in some ways pit neighboring businesses against each other in competition for parking spaces and patrons.

“Obviously there will be some businesses that don’t survive,” French said. “We’re just a couple of guys boiling pastas who wanted to come to an awesome place in town and build out of this historical building and share what we do best.”

On the other hand, Eleanor Wilson Ruder, owner and founder of Componere Gallery, said that she had been relatively unaffected by the Trolley project.

“I’ve been here 30 years, and so I have a built-in clientele, and if they want to walk around the block they can certainly get here easy enough,” Ruder said.

She also anticipated that the Trolley would benefit the gallery.

“[Tourists] would probably want to see local artists, so then they could just catch that trolley there at the history museum and come over here and see the Loop, and I’m right across the street from Blueberry Hill, so I’m in a great spot for tourists,” Ruder said.

According to Jodie Vice Lloyd, manager of economic development for the Department of Community Development, the city of St. Louis and Loop Special Business District created forgivable loans for retail businesses that can show a loss of revenue based on Trolley construction in an effort to mitigate any losses.

“The loans are not federally funded, but locally funded. Several businesses have applied for and have received a forgivable loan for $12,000 to help alleviate some revenue loss because of Trolley construction,” Lloyd wrote to Student Life in an email.

To keep information confidential, the city did not review the business financial information submitted for the forgivable loan, Lloyd noted, and thus no specific information can be provided in regard to what businesses received what amounts of money.

Nonetheless, it appears that this emergency funding is not always sufficient, as Rocket Fizz owner Mark Strahm—who received only $4,000 of grant money—said the funding was allegedly intended primarily for businesses that were at least three years old.

“It was supposed to be first-come, first-serve on the money, and so we turned in [our application] really early…and now they told us, ‘no, we’ve had so many people apply now that there won’t be any money left,’” Strahm said.

Unfortunately for businesses, it may be some time before construction is completed and they can begin to reap the proposed benefits of the Loop Trolley, according to Chris Poehler, district administrator for the Loop Trolley Development District.

“Construction should all be done this calendar year, even before the winter, but the issue is we have to do testing after that and it’s hard to say exactly how long that’s going to take,” Poehler said.

Sarah Fenske, editor-in-chief of the Riverfront Times, felt the effects of the hike in rent prices firsthand. The newspaper will be moving off the Loop and into the Central West End in the near future.

“People are shocked when I tell them that, because they’re like, ‘you can afford the Central West End?’ Well, it’s actually less expensive than the Loop, and that is crazy talk,” Fenske said.

Edwards believes the solution to the rent issue is simple.

“The landlords need to say, ‘OK, well, long-term, even though I’ll give them a lower rent than I would normally or could get from [national chains] …the Loop has to keep its integrity,” Edwards said. “Every building owner needs to make his or her own decision on how to keep that unique business; that long-term is going to benefit them much more than [having] that independent business go out and having some nondescript, multiple-location place come in.”

Overall, Edwards thinks the community should be grateful for the Loop Trolley, although many business owners are unsure.

“People in St. Louis should be grateful that this $51 million project is happening as a prototype for how to connect neighbors to each other…it is the future of cities in America, not just St. Louis,” Edwards said.

Additional reporting by Noah Jodice and Emily Schienvar.

You may view the article in its original format here

Alex Siegman