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Owners, chamber join forces to keep Corridor businesses healthy

Ever see a 10-percent-off sale on all the food in a pizza place, or all the alcohol in a liquor store?

It's happening every day along the Central Corridor, where light rail construction is triggering steep discounts at places like Campus Pizza in Minneapolis' Stadium Village, and Sharrett's Liquor Store in St. Paul's Midway area.

"Business is really down, so why not give another 10 percent away?" said Sharrett's co-owner Dana Rose. He's giving the discount to everyone who presents a Central Corridor Perks card, which is good for specials at businesses all along the new rail line.

The cards are free and available at participating stores. A handful of business associations collaborated to create the program. Another assistance program comes out of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, which has created a "Discover Central Corridor" marketing campaign to provide everything from special events to social media advice.

The Scope and the Scale

Construction of the light rail line linking downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul will wind past more than 1,000 businesses adjacent to the corridor, according to the project's recent environmental assessment. Most of those are small businesses with revenues of less than $2 million per year. The construction ends in 2013, and at least one business, the nightclub Rumours & Innuendo in downtown St. Paul, has closed since construction began in 2010.

Rose said his location at Raymond and West University Avenue is "ground zero" for construction at the moment. With half of the street fenced off for blocks, storefront access isn't always intuitive, and mid-block venues like Caffe Biaggio are giving out special instructions on how to reach the door.

"Traffic is just ridiculous," Rose said. His customers regularly report the number of times they drive around the block to find a place to park. He said it's hard to say how much the loyalty cards are helping business so far, but Sharrett's has already run out of them after giving about 200 away.

In addition to the cards, a mobile app alternative rolled out in late March. And if customer traffic gets particularly dire at a business this summer, program administrators will send out an email to loyal customers and offer extra-deep discounts.

"We want to make the reward for finding that parking spot worth the effort," said Chris Ferguson, the owner of the Stadium Village Dairy Queen, who helped develop and design the program.

Downs and Ups

Unfortunately, the cards haven't been a huge help at Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar, according to the co-owner of the shop at 4th and Broadway in Lowertown. Last summer, the caf�'s morning latte business virtually disappeared.

"It seemed like every day was a different route to get here," said co-owner Andy Remke. "It was pretty hard to get within a block with a car."

Black Dog has tried several discounts through avenues like Groupon. Staff see a few people spend liberally, but many others use the deals to grab the cheapest purchase they can find.

"It's a tricky thing," Remke said. "You're in a situation where you're struggling financially, and what everyone tells you to do is to give things away. How do I give things away, I'm not making any money now? There is a limit to how much of that you can do."

It's a different story at Saint Paul Classic Cookie, where the card nets customers a free cookie with the purchase of three, or $2.50 off a dozen. Owner and baker Katie Novotny said the cards have actually brought new faces in the door.

"It's been tremendous for us," she said.

Novotny has also become a heavy social media user. She uses Facebook to tell people where to park, and she sends out a tweet when fresh cookies are coming out of the oven.

"We've had a Facebook page since 2007, but we didn't really figure out how to use it for another year," she said.

More Cyber-Solutions

The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce is hoping to speed up that learning curve for other businesses hit by construction. The chamber has held workshops on social media, and Transportation Manager Zach Schwartz is happy to field questions on the topic. He said businesses like Ngon Vietnamese Bistro and Saigon Restaurant have already built up a solid online following well before construction starts in their area.

The "Discover Central Corridor" marketing campaign has compiled a Twitter feed for all the businesses along the construction line, and banners proclaiming that stores are open during construction are available at the Midway Chamber of Commerce office.

The campaign includes four special events, the first of which was May 5 at The Lyric at Carleton Place in St. Paul. At the event, the "Hats Off to the Central Corridor" public art project was unveiled--styrofoam heads, with construction-zone hard hats, decorated and interpreted in a wide range of ways by area artists. (The art-heads are on display in Central Corridor businesses through the end of May. At the same May 5 event, the people behind the South Saint Anthony Park Creative Enterprise Zone presented their plans for furthering arts-oriented small business during LRT construction and after; see our accompanying feature.)

Staging musical events has been one of the most successful strategies for Black Dog, which occasionally receives promotional assistance from the Chamber. The caf� will continue to find creative ways to deal with construction at the nearby Lafayette Bridge, as well as the construction of its new neighbor, a light rail maintenance center. But Remke is hopeful that the worst is over in his area.

"We've had to scratch and crawl, but we're happy we made it this far," he said. "We see a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel."

Michelle Bruch reported on the Facing Race awards evening in our May 11th issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

Chris Ferguson, owner of Stadium Village Dairy Queen, who helped develop a Central Corridor merchant-loyalty program

Dana Rose, co-owner of Sharrett's Liquor on University, gives discounts to Central Corridor Perks cardholders.

Katie Novotny of St. Paul Classic Cookie has seen business thrive under the loyalty program--and thanks to her online presence.

University at Raymond: Big hopes, immediate challenges for merchants and customers.

All photos by Bill Kelley

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