Light rail kills restaurateur’s dream in St. Paul

posted at 10:31 am on April 15, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

What happens when a city decides to dig up one of its main traffic arteries for a number of years to put a train in the middle of the street? Well, as it turns out, a number of things happen. First, traffic gets horribly congested, and after that happens, people start looking for alternate ways around the city. That leaves businesses located on or near that street without too many customers — and thanks to the nature of light rail, unlikely to recover much even after construction completes. WCCO tells the story of Tony and Heidi Panelli, owners of Caribe, a restaurant that will cease to exist by this afternoon:

A St. Paul restaurant owner says he’s been forced to close down for good.

He blames light rail construction on University Avenue for driving away more than half his customers. Other businesses in the area said they’ve also suffered in the last several months.

Tony Panelli will close Caribe Caribbean Bistro after brunch on Sunday. He opened the restaurant exactly two years ago Saturday. He called his restaurant a dream come true. But he says construction just a block away from his kitchen killed his dream.

Even if Tony and Heidi had the cash to outlast construction on nearby University Avenue through Midtown, the future looked bleak.  Unlike vehicle traffic, which had been turning onto Caribe’s Raymond Avenue thanks to the traffic light at the intersection, light rail will only stop occasionally on University, and Raymond Avenue would not be a likely stop.  With the train in the middle of University, traffic will remain congested even after the end of construction as well (with narrower lanes, too), which meant that the current situation for Caribe was almost certainly not temporary.

Business fell off nearly 60% when construction got underway, and as anyone who has worked in the difficult independent-restaurant business knows, that’s not a situation that can continue for very long.  It’s amazing that the Panellis stayed in business as long as they could — and they’re hardly alone.  The light rail agency claims that they try to promote businesses along the corridor, but they’re not having much of an impact.  During construction, the agency claims net-positive business growth as 61 businesses have opened while 55 have closed, but that’s a pretty pathetic net growth of six businesses along what had been one of the main thoroughfares of St. Paul in over a year’s time.  Furthermore, the 55 businesses that have closed were established, successful enterprises like Caribe, whose pre-light-rail leases and taxes probably generated more private and public revenue than more recent operations that can take advantage of declining lease values in the area.  And how many of these new operations are retail businesses, generating sales and local tax revenues?  Given the damage to traffic in the area, I’d be inclined to guess that retail businesses in the University Avenue corridor are going to be a thing of the past — like Caribe.

Last night, we went to Caribe for its last evening in operation.  My wife and a friend of mine from high school who lives on my street — a long story in itself, since we live in Minnesota and both went to school in California — met our former drama teacher at Caribe for dinner and over 30 years of catching up.  The shame of this closing was evident in the otherwise wonderful time we had.  As you can see from the above video, Caribe is a charming, colorful environment, perfect for long conversations and evenings with friends.  The food was absolutely delicious, and the service was personal and attentive.  Heidi was out trying to land a new location (and got bad news just before we arrived), but Tony spent a lot of time with us, a welcome member of the conversation.    It’s the kind of independent restaurant that any community would love to have in its neighborhood — involved owners, diverse menu, and a self-renovated storefront that brightened up the whole street.

And now it’s gone, a victim of a light-rail system that will burden St. Paul, Minneapolis, and the entire state with massive subsidies while doing nothing to promote better traffic conditions and small businesses anywhere except right at the stops.  Raymond Avenue will be a grimmer place for the loss — but hopefully, Tony and Heidi will find another location that will benefit the neighborhood wise enough to welcome them with open arms, and diners who rediscover Tony’s Caribbean cuisine.  We’ll have more on that in the future.

Addendum: You can follow Tony and Heidi on Twitter at @CaribeBistro.

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addendum:
Seems to me that the constant here is bad gov’t and unions.

JohnnyD on April 15, 2012 at 6:15 PM

Absolutely. Everything government touches ends up costing more and producing less.

However, the business owner took a risk that the project would not come to fruition and/or he would be able to ride it out. He lost. Tough break, but I don’t think he has anyone to blame.

DaveO on April 15, 2012 at 4:14 PM

The means I don’t think the business owner(s) should get bailouts. That says absolutely nothing about whether the government should have forced them out by building the light rail in the first place. And make no mistake, that’s exactly what government did in this instance. There is not a thing government can do without forcing people. NOTHING.

gryphon202 on April 15, 2012 at 6:39 PM

Light rail always starts out with lots of promises…

… to end downtown congestion!

… to get more pedestrians downtown!

… to make the downtown commute shorter!

… to connect the airport to downtown!

Then the visions get scaled back… and back… and back…

The cost goes up… and up… and up…

Suddenly the airport is still not connected to downtown.

Suddenly the commutes get longer as a MAIN THOROUGHFARE into downtown is used for light rail.

Suddenly a strip of businesses along the main thoroughfare find they have fewer customers as they are avoiding downtown like the plague.

Suddenly traffic congestion gets worse and that never goes away as the traffic that used to do down a main artery now is going into side-streets not designed for that load.

Oh, and the thing is a white elephant, better off ended and shut down than run at a continual loss… not that you can ever, not once, convince politicians of this.

Light rail from nowhere to nowhere, serving few people, solving no problems and causing much heartache.

But it is so PROGRESSIVE, donchyaknow, to use souped up trollies rather than those cars which give independent mobility.

ajacksonian on April 15, 2012 at 6:59 PM

Shovel-ready? Yup, if by shovel-ready you mean getting buried by Big Government nonsense.

Light rail, wherever it’s been jammed down people’s throats, ends up surviving on subsidies, and is under-utilized to the point of hilarity — except no one’s laughing. America likes her cars (gas-powered ones that aren’t deathtraps made of cardboard and spit.)

hillbillyjim on April 15, 2012 at 7:42 PM

The means I don’t think the business owner(s) should get bailouts. That says absolutely nothing about whether the government should have forced them out by building the light rail in the first place. And make no mistake, that’s exactly what government did in this instance. There is not a thing government can do without forcing people. NOTHING.

gryphon202 on April 15, 2012 at 6:39 PM

Not sure who was forcing whom here. Once again, the business owner opened up shop in a location with known issues. The business owner took the chance that the issues were not so high that the business owner couldn’t make a profit. The business owner guessed wrong. Oh well.

DaveO on April 15, 2012 at 8:29 PM

Tony y Heidi: Por favor múdense a Erie, PA. Aquí hace falta restaurantes latinos y del Caribe. Si no, aquí hay cama y me cocinan alguito! ;)

ProudPalinFan on April 15, 2012 at 8:49 PM

some funny posts here…I’m not against light rail where it makes sense (high density areas where the alternatives are “painful”).

A quote above saying “try it then comment”…the poster has no concept of what is known as a “sunk-cost” (probably a BA grad with a degree in fine arts)…there are no refunds if you decide it was a stupid idea (but typical “progressive” thinking).

teejk on April 15, 2012 at 9:03 PM

St. Paul, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook are easy to find on Google now.

BL@KBIRD on April 15, 2012 at 9:10 PM

Not sure who was forcing whom here. Once again, the business owner opened up shop in a location with known issues. The business owner took the chance that the issues were not so high that the business owner couldn’t make a profit. The business owner guessed wrong. Oh well.

DaveO on April 15, 2012 at 8:29 PM

I guess that depends on whether you’re talking about what would have been better for the Panellis or what would have been better for downtown Minneapolis to begin with. Had they thought about building and decided not to, light rail would have killed their business just the same. We just wouldn’t be here arguing about it because we’d have been none the wiser, and instead of businesses closing now upon the commencement of construction, they would have closed in the last two years and left the unionized construction crews to a vertiable commercial desert. And it sounds to me like you’re okay with that. I’m not. And we’ll have to chalk that up to a difference of opinion.

gryphon202 on April 15, 2012 at 9:58 PM

Great. Let’s also make sure to stop building highways the next time a highway project takes out a small business.

Otto Zilch on April 15, 2012 at 11:19 PM

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door

People will go just about anywhere for good grub…and they will need a place to park. Charlotte’s train has been running a few years now and it is far from the clusterfark we thought it would be. Ridership exceeded expectations and has remained high. When light rail is available, people use it in as many varying ways as any other method of transportation. Positive economic impact in the area is almost certain.

mike_NC9 on April 15, 2012 at 11:31 PM

When our Democrat-run city widened the streets downtown and made them all one-way they made it easier for people to get away from the downtown area and hastened it’s demise. Brilliant!

swinia sutki on April 16, 2012 at 6:13 AM

Since I moved here in 1975 I’ve witnessed half a dozen good restaurants close for various reasons. I miss them all and some had dishes that I loved and that have not been available anywhere else, but it’s just the way of things – always made worse by government interference. It’s a tragedy for the owners but it’s not a national tragedy. Wipe your eyes and find another restaurant, Ed.

swinia sutki on April 16, 2012 at 6:41 AM

Beware the politician(s) who want to make an “impact” for the good of us all (with our money, of course).

RobertMN on April 16, 2012 at 7:05 AM

“Look I shop plenty at Walmart, but they don’t build in the town square, where a great many mom and pops are located.. It’s apples and oranges.”

I’ve spent a lot of time in those small Midwest and Southern towns that sprung up around the county courthouse square. Those small businesses were going out of business anyhow as the youngins head off to college or other greener pastures. With no family to carry on the tradition, those butchers, bakers, tailors, and candlestick makers were not going to last anyway. Besides, most of them are so old and poorly constructed, it would cost a fortune to renovate them.
Back in the day, they were indispensable, not anymore.
~(Ä)~

Karl Magnus on April 16, 2012 at 7:39 AM

Another left-wing wet dream driven by union activists.

mike0993 on April 16, 2012 at 8:53 AM

People will go just about anywhere for good grub…and they will need a place to park. Charlotte’s train has been running a few years now and it is far from the clusterfark we thought it would be. Ridership exceeded expectations and has remained high. When light rail is available, people use it in as many varying ways as any other method of transportation. Positive economic impact in the area is almost certain.

mike_NC9 on April 15, 2012 at 11:31 PM

Mike, I agree about Charlotte’s Lynx, being that I live in Fort Mill, and I’ve used it for uptown trips with the family. The difference from this case to Charlotte’s is that we used an old railroad system, whereas St. Paul apparently destroyed a fully functioning boulevard to make way for their train. That is just sheer folly.

ICBMMan on April 16, 2012 at 8:59 AM

During the construction season in Saint Paul, which started early this spring, it can take so long to cross University Avenue, from north to south or vice-versa, that it just makes more sense to avoid the area entirely. I’m not just talking about the businesses along University, but also those along the main arterial streets since so much traffic has been funneled onto them.

So it is not just a few hundred of small businesses that are being negatively affected, but thousands. On the other hand, it could be a good thing for businesses that are located further away from the light rail construction.

J Baustian on April 16, 2012 at 10:59 AM

Come on, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.

/get with the small-business pogrom

roy_batty on April 16, 2012 at 11:52 AM

Risk of free market. Quit whining

plewis on April 16, 2012 at 1:42 PM

. Had they thought about building and decided not to, light rail would have killed their business just the same. We just wouldn’t be here arguing about it because we’d have been none the wiser, and instead of businesses closing now upon the commencement of construction, they would have closed in the last two years and left the unionized construction crews to a vertiable commercial desert. And it sounds to me like you’re okay with that. I’m not. And we’ll have to chalk that up to a difference of opinion.

gryphon202 on April 15, 2012 at 9:58 PM

The risks associated with the site were well known and probably factored into the market value of the original lease. Had the project not been on the horizon, the business owner probably would have paid more for his lease. He got a contract valued to a particular market environment and now complains because the market conditions did NOT change. Cry me a river.

DaveO on April 16, 2012 at 2:46 PM

Risk of free market. Quit whining

plewis on April 16, 2012 at 1:42 PM

Government diqueing up the status quo for no good reason doesn’t really count as ‘free market’…

affenhauer on April 16, 2012 at 3:43 PM

Of the ‘new’ light rail systems that have sprung up over the past 30 years or so, Dallas’ system seems to be doing better than some of the others. But Dallas was smart enough to run their light rail through downtown in available alleys (or, in one spot, underground), and not in the main streets, so that the system ends up as an augment to, and not in place of, street vehicular traffic.
jon1979 on April 15, 2012 at 11:34 AM

Is it going to DFW yet? How about along the 635 loop instead of going into downtown then back out if you want to go from Mesquite to Plano?

Also, last time I was in Dallas (~6 years ago), the light rail did go over the top of some roads downtown, so it did cause traffic problems. Has that changed (I doubt it).

I used to ride it to Mavericks/Stars games, but that was it. I would have rode it to the airport, but it didn’t go there.

cptacek on April 16, 2012 at 3:58 PM

Someone’s been playing too much Sim City maybe?

Dr. ZhivBlago on April 17, 2012 at 12:09 AM

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