February 15, 2012
By: Isabel Broyld, Neighborhood Development Center – U7 Project Manager
Nearly four years ago, the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) invited seven community development organizations to partner together to help Saint Paul small businesses thrive during the Central Corridor Light Rail Construction. This collaborative became the University Avenue Business Preparation Collaborative or U7. The U7 collaborative has now provided quality services and resources to small business owners for a full round of Central Corridor Light Rail Transit construction along University Avenue. And what a round it was! In 2011, we learned quite a bit, we were glad to be part of the effort, and we are now busy preparing for round two.
Lessons learned in 2011
In 2011, construction focused on the stretch of University between Hamline and Emerald Street, also known as Segment 1. In this area, U7 Staff, consultants, interns and volunteers worked one-on-one with 51 small business owners; 25 of which successfully applied for the Ready for Rail Forgivable Loan. U7 provided extensive services and resources to those 51 business owners, totaling 1548.8 hours of technical assistance, material production and coaching. Specific examples include assistance with bookkeeping, accounting, cash-flow projections, preparing financial statements, legal, logo development, branding, interior design, window signage, pre-façade improvement work, city issues, construction issues, marketing, social media, securing catering opportunities for restaurants, assisting with forgivable loan applications, media press and promotions. In addition, U7 staff engaged several businesses in the Discover the Central Corridor marketing efforts, promoting a coupon book, loyalty cards and other events.
Our observation of construction impacts so far is that small business owners drastically underestimated the impacts that construction would have on their businesses and often requested assistance from U7 at the last minute. Those last minute requests were difficult for us to address effectively. U7 has also found that businesses that survived Segment 1 construction are still experiencing a downturn in sales due to changes in customer traffic patterns – both vehicle and pedestrian. This year, our efforts will be to reach out to those Segment 1 businesses and engage our partners in a coordinated effort to restore traffic patterns.
Challenges in 2012
In 2012, construction will begin on Segment 2 which is the portion of University Avenue between Hamline and Rice. The biggest challenge facing U7 as we seek to serve these business owners is to gather more hands on deck to enable us to respond to last minute requests. Another challenge is that there are significantly more storefronts in Segment 2 when compared to Segment 1. This means higher demand for our services, and our corresponding work load will likely be much larger than last year. This brings us to our last challenge; a large majority of the businesses that operate in Segment 2 are Asian-owned small businesses. Although our engagement and partnerships with the Asian community continue to develop and improve, we still have considerable work ahead in developing strong relationships with this community.
How will U7 overcome the challenges?
We will work to form new and strengthen current partnerships with Asian organizations and increase our current level of outreach to Asian business owners. Recently we have seen positive results from these efforts. We will make stronger connections with Asian press agencies and place articles and advertisements in local papers about U7 services.
U7 will continue to conduct extensive door-to-door, print promotions and web outreach about the forgivable loan program targeted at eligible businesses. U7 will again conduct specific workshops about the forgivable loan in conjunction with Neighborhood Development Center’s Loan Officers. We will also provide one-on-one accounting, bookkeeping assistance and offer the full menu of U7 services to program applicants.
U7 staff and partners (Sparc, Greater Frogtown Community Development Corporation, and Aurora St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation) recently launched the U7 Façade Improvement Program and will facilitate about 15 façade improvement projects. U7 will continue to coordinate with the Asian Economic Development Association on façade improvements for Little Mekong (the area around the Western Station).
We are excited to partner with the Business Resources Collaborative to launch a new program, hopefully in May 2012, called the Discover the Central Corridor Business Backer Program. The purpose of the program is to provide moral and financial support for the businesses struggling with disruption from light-rail construction. Simply put, the program provides communities – such as neighborhoods, churches, or employees of nearby businesses – a short-term, informal “adoption” process to help one or two specific Central Corridor businesses get through the hard times.
All in all, we feel encouraged by the work U7 accomplished in 2011 and are hopeful that our preparations and planning will prove fruitful for 2012.
For more information, visit us online at http://universityseven.squarespace.com.