The potholes that collectively comprised Duluth's Fourth Street will soon be a distant memory, but for many businesses in the area it's getting worse before it gets better.

The second year of roadwork is affecting a second suite of businesses as the major thoroughfare closes for nearly six months between 10th and 19th avenues east.

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"Once people see road construction, they panic," said Ski Hut owner Scott Neustel. "We've heard lots of comments on how hard it is to get to us. It's a big project."

Every year the snow melts to reveal orange cones and heavy machines, though some road construction seasons can take a greater toll on neighbors than others. Getting to the other side of the road closure will take patience from business owners and a little extra effort from customers.

Shop owners didn't wake up one morning to find Fourth Street torn to shreds, of course.

"We have multiple meetings with business owners prior to construction, so if they have concerns we make sure we can address them," said Steve Krasaway, resident engineer for the St. Louis County project. "Breaking things into phases ... really helped, and we worked with them to get special business signing."

The suffering is short-term, as it should only be a few more weeks until a stretch of Fourth Street reopens, allowing access to the edge of the commercial district even while the rest of the project continues into November.

"It's a little bit of pain, but Fourth Street's going to be great when it's done," Neustel said.

 

Slowdown

Neustel admits that the weather could be slowing down the mountain bike business on top of construction, though it's the same kind of dip the shop experienced when work started last summer.

"It's been a pretty crappy spring, but my business is down significantly," he said. "There's no question about that."

Down the street, the biggest complaint from Carquest Auto Parts is getting deliveries and asking customers to hike up the hill to the door.

"There have been lots of complaints about the distance they have to walk," said manager Patrick Hamilton. "We're definitely looking forward to it being done."

Then there's the trouble of enticing customers to businesses like the Mobil gas station and Shanty Bottle Shop when there are nearby competitors with easier access.

Yet the $13.8 million project is needed, Krasaway said, not just to patch up the rough roadway but to replace the 100-year-old utilities that run below it.

"There will be new bike lanes for people commuting to work, new ADA-compliant sidewalks, people can walk around more and get to businesses - it's a big revitalization to the whole corridor," he said

While the utilities belong to the city, some of Fourth Street is actually St. Louis County Road 9, putting the burden of road repairs on the county.

Krasaway said the contractors - KGM of Cook - were offered up to $250,000 to expedite the sections that affect businesses the most, which seems to be working.

"We're still on track to have 10th to 14th completely done by mid-June," Krasaway said.

Neustel said KGM has been very attentive to business needs in the area, even replacing the sidewalk in front of Ski Hut early in the process.

"They're trying hard, and they understand the pain businesses are suffering, and they're being real responsive."

 

Lessons

Last year it was Whole Foods Co-op that bore the brunt of Fourth Street construction. General Manager Sarah Hannigan said it made for some tough times, especially as work continued into the fall.

"It's definitely a tricky thing to navigate as a business," she said. "Some have been impacted multiple years."

Hannigan said the county was a big help with signage and continued access to the parking lot. The store also went out of its way to keep business running during construction, whether through banners and a billboard or personal encouragement.

"We continued to communicate with our shoppers and made it a point to thank them while they were in the store and in our promotional literature," Hannigan said. "We thanked them for coming to the store and acknowledging it was sometimes difficult to get to the store. We also did everything we could to provide additional carryout assistance."

Though these aren't the first businesses to be affected by construction, Fourth Street work can help provide an updated roadmap for even more businesses when Superior Street is ripped up next year.

The Greater Downtown Council has been pushing a "Get Downtown" campaign, with a recent week of specials and a loyalty card to help build a customer base ahead of the reconstruction.

The Center for Economic Development at the University of Minnesota Duluth has offered classes to help businesses weather road closures before and likely will again, said Kristi Stokes, president of the downtown council.

"This is not just a downtown project, but a city project, so it will be up to all of us to serve as ambassadors to share information and let customers/clients/etc. know that while there is construction, they will still be able to access our businesses," Stokes wrote in an email. "We have assembled a committee to provide a unified message and we're seeking additional funds to assist with marketing."

Belknap Street businesses bear construction in Superior

With Memorial Day weekend over, work on the reconstruction of Belknap Street is back in full swing. Businesses with a front-row seat to the construction have been feeling the effects of the work, some more than others.

Many said they were pleased with the decision to leave Belknap Street open to traffic throughout the project.

"By keeping one side open over two years it's good for business, because there's still access," said Tina Prior, owner of Shirts Unlimited.

When access to the Belknap Plaza got cut off at one point, Belknap Liquor and Lounge co-owner Alan Jaques said the contractors were quick to open it back up.

"The contractors are way better than in the '80s," he said, and have really paid attention to the details.

At the nearby Plaza Beauty Shop, owner Sandy Fraley said she is still seeing new clients.

"It's better than what I thought it was going to be," Fraley said.

On the other end of Belknap, some retail shops are struggling.

"Business is down 30 to 40 percent," said the Salvation Army's Nancy Cox. She attributes it to parking issues, although regulars still find a way to the store.

Goodiel Beads at 1717 Belknap St. opened April 21. Owner Jamie Goodiel said she's had to cut hours and lay off one employee. They're down to a skeleton crew.

"I think we're going to make it," Goodiel said. "I think we're all going to have to pull together."

For updates on the Belknap Street reconstruction project, visit projects.511wi.gov/belknap, superiorbid.com or the Belknap/US 2 Construction Facebook page.

- Superior Telegram