Lissa Marinaro’s Zoe Boutique has sold young women’s fashions and accessories on the north end of the Fourth Avenue merchant district for 20 years. Her customers are loyal— so when fences rose outside her doors and work crews spent months tearing up pavement and laying down streetcar tracks, her small business survived.
Sales were down some— she wouldn’t want heavy street construction again, but Zoe didn’t have a terrible time of it, Marinaro said. She revved up her online presence and reached out to shoppers, letting them know the closest parking was still just a short walk from the shop, 735 N. 4th Ave.
“It looked a lot worse than it was,” she said.
Marino said she was always for the streetcar, and her employees, who are University of Arizona students, seem excited about it.
The $197 million Sun Link streetcar opens to the public today more than two years after construction started and eight years after Tucson voters approved the project as part of the $2.1 billion Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) plan. The 3.9-mile route connects the University of Arizona, Main Gate Square, the Fourth Avenue business district, downtown and the Mercado area west of Interstate 10 and is the city’s largest, most complex construction project ever, funded with dollars from the RTA and other federal and local sources.
Austin Counts was kitchen manager at The B Line, 621 N. 4th Ave., when construction blocked off his stretch of Fourth in early 2012. By that summer, he had opened his own restaurant, the 4th Avenue Deli, a couple of blocks south.
The deli missed a majority of the construction, but The B Line definitely slowed down, he said.
The high season arrived and diners continued to visit, but for a while co-workers were concerned about their jobs, and people didn’t quite know what to expect.
“I don’t think anybody on the avenue at that time really knew how much business was truly going to slow down when those fences went up,” he said.
Counts, whose deli, at 425 N. 4th Ave., is right at a stop, showed a sense of humor about the streetcar when he sold T-shirts proclaiming “I survived the streetcar” on the back and a crashing stick-figure bicyclist flailing over the tracks, an image taken straight off of street signs reminding cyclists to be aware of the rails.
He said employees from the Sun Link headquarters about a block away are lunchtime regulars. The relatively new business owner but 25-year Tucsonan has supported the streetcar all along and would have even if he didn’t own a business on Fourth.
Britton Dornquast is director of the MainStreet Business Assistance program, an RTA-funded office that helps businesses in the paths of all infrastructure improvements ride out construction. He said few businesspeople on the streetcar line were adamantly against the addition.
“Overall the corridor was very bullish about the streetcar in a variety of ways,” Dornquast said. “There was some nervousness in certain areas.”
Construction impacts, increased competition due to businesses wanting to locate on the line in anticipation of a more robust customer stream (or greater connectivity making similar businesses less isolated), and increased rents as landlords anticipated the value of their real estate increasing all shook up some anxiety. And new competition and increased rents have led to some turnover along the corridor, he said.
Some people are just scared of change, he said. It’s normal to be nervous, but some proprietors were motivated by the challenge.
“Attitude plays a huge factor in these kinds of things. Is it the same construction? Yes. Is it the same impacts for a business, potentially? Yeah,” he said. “But in terms of how we approach it, it’s just mind-boggling how that can affect what happens and even the numbers that come as a result of that.”
MainStreet has consulted on roughly 50 total regional projects impacting some 5,000 businesses, providing informational liaisons and construction ombudsmen, preparation workshops and one-on-one counseling. Based on these experiences, Dornquast said a typical shop in a construction zone can expect to see business fall by about 15 to 20 percent (MainStreet uses an algorithm to estimate just how much a business might suffer.) Some shops can fare worse, others better, and a rare one can even get a boost. Professional services, such as doctors or accountants, tend to stay stable.
For the approximately four-mile streetcar corridor, about 850 businesses are within a quarter-mile of the route. About 180 took advantage of MainStreet’s direct counseling services.
Dornquast said that some business owners viewed the streetcar’s feasibility with a pragmatic skepticism up until the city won a $63 million Federal Transit Administration grant in 2010. At that point, private investment lit up almost immediately, he said.
Now, about a year after construction wrapped up and operational testing started, businesspeople are ready for streetcar action, he said.
With the fences long down outside the 4th Avenue Deli, Austin Counts agreed that his neighbors are eager to see the cars moving.
“Ultimately this is a good thing for our city and I’m glad to see that it’s here. It’s finally here,” he said. “I hope that once the naysayers actually get on the streetcar and ride it that they will enjoy it, and they will stop by the deli and get a sandwich.”
David Slutes, entertainment director for Hotel Congress, said the downtown revitalization over the past two years is largely a result of streetcar-driven buy-in.
“Its impact has already been felt,” he said
Hotel Congress, at 311 E. Congress St., weathered the construction well, Slutes said. It is, of course, an institution; with its 95-year presence in Tucson, the hotel and nightspot has the roots to be a survivor, he acknowledged.
Slutes said he has always been a streetcar proponent. With significant public-private investment that has transformed downtown as a residential, business, dining and cultural district, the streetcar has, in a way, been around for a while.
“It’s frosting now.”