ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s been a rough go for Buck Buckner.
He says his business, Rain Tunnel Car Spa, has been down $50,000 a month. The lack of traffic at the Old Town car wash, he says, is due to the ripped-apart Rio Grande/Central intersection, part of Albuquerque Rapid Transit construction, and a related utility project.
Work on ART, a system that will involve new, bus-only lanes and stations down the middle of Central Avenue between Louisiana and Coors, began in October and should continue through most of 2017. City officials say the project will enhance public transportation and help spur development along the old Route 66, though opponents contend it could ruin the road’s character, worsen traffic and hurt businesses.
At the project’s eastern end, the owner of Southwestern Minerals saw last month’s sales drop more than 25 percent compared to January 2016.
ART construction seems to be keeping customers away, said Melisa Young-Spaeth, second-generation owner of the Albuquerque gem and jeweler supply store.
Adding to her woes, she said, were two break-ins the store suffered during January – only the second and third such incidents in the shop’s 48 years on Central Avenue near Louisiana.
Young-Spaeth has tried distributing discount coupons to get more people in her doors, but they got little traction. Her daughter-in-law received some free web-design training – part of a city-backed business assistance program – which she said has helped the store improve its website.
But sales are still off.
“You’re talking a quarter of the business, 25 percent, and they aren’t even (directly) in front of us yet,” she said of the crews.
Construction intensity varies along the route. Activity remains limited to lane reductions in some places, while other areas have seen demolished sidewalks, squiggly lined traffic patterns, and a bevy of orange barriers, heavy machinery and hard-hatted workers.
Joanie Griffin, a spokeswoman for the ART project, said she has heard of sales declining between 25 percent and 40 percent – comparable, she said, to what other communities in the U.S. have seen during rapid transit projects. Other markets have seen business not only stabilize, but also grow beyond pre-construction levels once the system is complete, she said.
The impact seen so far for Albuquerque businesses has run the gamut and many variables are at play, said Kelli Muwumba of the Small Business Resource Collaborative, a crew of independent consultants funded by the city to counsel small, independent, walk-in-traffic-reliant businesses along the route.
Even among businesses that have closed their doors, there is no consensus.
Tamara Mahboub is shutting down Nob Hill Furniture after 25 years. Hit hard by the recession, she said the store was finally showing signs of recovery when construction started last fall and sales fell precipitously. It was the knockout blow for Mahboub, who told the Journal last month “there’s no way I could keep going like that.”
But Tom Ford, who closed Hey Jhonny lifestyle boutique in Nob Hill this month, did not lay the blame on ART. While he said its construction did not help matters, he noted that his sales had been declining for years in the face of internet competition. Such closures are not unprecedented in Nob Hill, which has seen a series of other well-known boutiques close over the past several years.
The ART corridor has actually added some new independent businesses in recent months, like Frenchish restaurant and My Vinyl Offer record store in Nob Hill. There are some significant developments slated for the corridor, too, including The Highlands, a $95 million five-block project that Titan Development and Maestas Development Group are undertaking across from Presbyterian Hospital. In Downtown, architect Mark Baker even cited ART as a factor in his mixed-use revival of the old Sears building at 5th and Central.
An occasional benefit
ART has been a boon to some.
Blunt Bros. Coffee owner Dave Rodriguez said that, since October, sales have risen at his business at Central and Washington. He said he has done nothing special – not even pulling weeds on his property – and has not availed himself of any consulting help from the Small Business Resource Collaborative.
When given the chance to advertise a special promotion for the city’s ART-driven “66 Reasons to Love 66” online business listing, he volunteered only this cheeky deal: “Buy one drink at regular price, get the second drink at regular price.”
While Rodriguez could not quantify his sales increase, he said it has been noticeable since work started last October. He theorizes that road closures have slowed traffic and improved customer awareness of his shop.
“They’re like ‘Hey, there’s a coffee place. Hey, it has a drive-thru. Hey, I think I’m going to check them out,'” he said.
His experience is hardly universal; Buckner said many of his Old Town neighbors are suffering.
Buckner said price discounting to attract more customers is not financially possible at this point, so his strategy is to appeal to longtime customers through messages to his email list and a special radio ad campaign. The commercials acknowledge the neighborhood’s traffic quagmire, but ask customers to navigate it because, he said, “We need you more than ever in Old Town.”
Buckner has not tapped the small-business collaborative for help, saying he does not need a new website or advice running a business. His issue is simple.
“I’m humble, but I’m an MBA. I think I know my business well,” he said. “I need traffic.”
Daniel Quijano of the collaborative says businesses that have teamed with their neighbors generally have fared better during road work.
“Competition has its place, but now is not the time for it,” he said while speaking at a New Mexico American Marketing Association meeting this month. “In this scenario, collaboration is much more valuable than competition.”
Erin Wade, Vinaigrette restaurant owner, said such a grass-roots effort has already taken place in her neighborhood between Downtown and Old Town. She said her monthly sales were down October, November and December compared to the same months in 2015. The dips registered between 3 percent and 7 percent, enough that she shared concerns with her landlord.
He helped connect her with surrounding business owners and the group has been meeting about once a week since December. Wade said its first discussion almost immediately shifted from complaints to creative ideas for how to collectively survive the current challenges.
They decided to brand their neighborhood as West Downtown. They also agreed to help promote each other’s businesses through avenues like social media and have discussed possible events like a themed food competition where each restaurant would try to come up with, for example, an interesting dessert or green chile dish. Wade said she has never experienced such collaboration among neighboring business owners.
“People are upset (about construction) for good reason. I get it; I was upset. But what I’m excited about is what has resulted from it,” she said, adding that she thinks the neighborhood could actually grow stronger during this time.
“It probably wouldn’t have happened if we were just clunking along, not dealing with any adversity,” she said.