Asian business owners file complaint against Met Council

Concerned Asian Business Owners is the third group to take issue with light rail.

Tara Bannow

A coalition of Asian business owners filed a formal complaint against the Metropolitan Council alleging it failed to consider the negative impact light-rail construction will have on minority businesses along the Central Corridor. The group, Concerned Asian Business Owners , is made up of about 30 businesses, including restaurants, supermarkets, clothing stores, a dental clinic and nail and hair salons. TheyâÄôre seeking mitigation funding from the Met Council to ease the damage that construction of the 11-mile line will likely have on their businesses. But the Met Council is already struggling to stay within budget, and is in no position to provide assistance, Laura Baenen, spokeswoman for the project , said. âÄúWe do not even have the money to do that,âÄù she said. The 14-page complaint, filed on Oct. 16 to the Federal Transit Administration comes after numerous attempts to work with the Met Council, said Lysa Bui, owner of Saigon Restaurant and spokeswoman for the group . âÄúThe FTA complaint was my last option,âÄù she said. âÄúI had no choice but to go that route, because we were still being ignored.âÄù To receive federal funding for the $941 million project, the Met Council had to complete a Final Environmental Impact Statement , examining possible adverse effects of the construction, which received federal approval in August. For most businesses on the complaint, the loss of on-street parking due to construction will take away their only source of parking, Bui said. In total, businesses will lose 80 percent of their parking, she said. According to the complaint, 69 percent of the businesses in the areas likely to be hit hardest by the reduction in parking âÄî on University Avenue east of Lexington Parkway âÄî are Asian-owned. Based on similar situations in other cities, retail businesses such as restaurants lose 50 to 60 percent of revenue for each day their sidewalks or streets are torn up, said Linda Winsor , executive director of the University Avenue Business Association (UABA). Construction to relocate utilities in downtown St. Paul began in July, and some businesses are reporting a 50 percent decrease in sales. When Carlos Prada opened PradaâÄôs Café in April, business was great, he said. But when construction began three months later, his sales were cut in half. Had he known the street in front of his business would be closed, Prada said he wouldâÄôve started his business elsewhere. âÄúWe have customers who are very loyal to us and they tell us how frustrating it can be to get here,âÄù he said. âÄúItâÄôs been really hard.âÄù Prada said the reason his cafe has stayed afloat is because he also owns a building maintenance company. Otherwise, he wouldnâÄôt have made it, he said. âÄúSome people just have a small shop or storefront,âÄù he said. âÄúIf thatâÄôs all they do, itâÄôs going to be really tough.âÄù Although the Met Council promised to put up signs before beginning any construction, signs didnâÄôt go up in St. Paul for three and a half months after it began. While some say the signs ought to list the businesses on them, Baenen said thatâÄôs not feasible and that they will instead say âÄúbusiness as usual.âÄù Restaurants like BuiâÄôs and PradaâÄôs are located in large buildings and are only visible from the front sidewalk, so âÄúbusiness as usualâÄù signs are useless, Bui said. Baenen called the sign problem âÄúan important lesson learnedâÄù and said in the future, signs will precede construction. Various groups are in place to support businesses along the Central Corridor, such as the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative , Baenen said. The UABA recently opened a business information center to help businesses prepare for the construction. The center provides everything from legal information to tips for decreasing utility costs. The group lobbies policymakers and the Met Council on behalf of small businesses and is working to help set up a fund to support those hit hardest by the construction. St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman has pledged not to lose one job or business to the light-rail construction and to direct resources from the city of St. Paul to assist small businesses, Winsor said. The UABA will pressure the city of Minneapolis, Ramsey County, Hennepin County and the state to lend support as well, she said. The complaint comes about a month after the University of Minnesota sued Met Council over concerns that vibrations and electromagnetic fields from the trains could disrupt research. Last spring, a group that included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and housing groups filed a similar federal complaint against Met Council alleging it ignored potential negative effects of the light rail on minorities. If small businesses donâÄôt make it, the light-rail will not be as successful as planned, Winsor said. âÄúWe need to have all these little businesses for people to get services and goods and have entertainment and all of the things that make a community vibrant,âÄù she said. âÄúReally, the success of the small businesses will impact the success of the light rail.âÄù