Light rail kills restaurateur's dream in St. Paul

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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