Infrastructure projects such as road construction and bridge re-building are more than just public works endeavors. They are events that affect the whole community. Like any disruptive event, construction can pull a community apart or bring it together. If approached holistically with intentional collaboration and wisely applied funding, we can have better roads, and stronger communities as an outcome.
Construction creates stress and reaches into the minutia of everyone’s lives; transportation routes, shopping habits, and exercise routines among other aspects of daily life are affected. For businesses, there is potential to lose customers, reduce staff and hours, and ultimately close. In the built, urban environment of cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul, something more significant than good construction project management is needed to alleviate the ‘community stress’ that comes from construction.
An unprecedented movement to support local businesses in the path of the Central Corridor Light Rail Train (LRT) is happening. But many construction projects throughout the region and state have lasting impacts on local businesses and do not get the attention like Central Corridor. Short of drumming up petitions for environmental reviews and filing lawsuits, how can a community, including local businesses, deal with the cumulative impacts of numerous construction projects?
As a former neighborhood organization chair and current volunteer president of the non-profit Nicollet-East Harriet Business Association (NEHBA) in Southwest Minneapolis, I have been a part of a number of infrastructure projects. In the last five years there have been eight major projects impacting city, county, and state roads in Southwest Minneapolis. Businesses have approached NEHBA for help to navigate questions about road design, on-street parking, driveway removal and replacement, areaway abandonment, street lighting changes, property tax assessment, utility shutoffs, blocked access for deliveries and customer parking, detour signs, and more. Because of the serious impacts on small businesses, our organization became more active than just attending stakeholder meetings. We now assist local businesses before, during, and after construction by pursuing construction mitigation strategies. We have adopted a framework of “educate, advocate, communicate, and celebrate” to guide our work.
For effective public participation, the local business community needs to be treated as a separate and distinct stakeholder group, just as is the case for residents. We encourage businesses to attend meetings and community open houses, but we approach them differently than residents in the education process. The content of the information about construction is important, but so is the delivery method. Meeting times need to be cognizant of business needs; evening meetings do not work well for restaurateurs and many small retail shop owners rarely leave their store during businesses hours. With this spectrum of availability, in-person visits and education are a must. Separate meetings specifically for business owners allow project managers to understand how infrastructure is used by them and their customers. Preferences, priorities, and needs can expressed by businesses without being cast as “taking sides” on sensitive community issues.
For two recent projects, the Lyndale Bridge and road project, and the Nicollet Avenue reconstruction project, we took this active and innovative approach to educating businesses. In addition to in-person visits, business-oriented meetings, and emails, NEHBA created construction websites for two projects LyndaleConstruction.com and NicolletConstruction.com and updated them weekly. These are good tools for businesses and general public to learn more about the construction projects. Businesses can learn on their own time and work with us to deal with construction while still tending to their primary interest – their business.
A tough part of being part of a coalition of businesses is that their opinions are sometimes contrary to other stakeholders. How businesses use a street and perceive their transportation needs can be drastically different than what other stakeholders want from the same street. A great tool for engaging a diverse set of user needs of public space like a street is found in the City of Minneapolis’ transportation policy document, Access Minneapolis. There is a transparent and predictable process for engaging the community in the early design stages and a chapter on how to Develop a Citizen View of the Street to better understand stakeholders’ concerns and to build credibility into the design process. NEHBA found this helpful in developing an approach to working with the City and other community organizations.
During the Nicollet Avenue design process in 2011, many businesses were concerned with a loss (perceived and real) of on-street parking due to a proposal to reduce the street width. After the record-breaking snowfall during the winter of 2010-2011, businesses saw adjacent streets (38th Street, Grand Ave) reduced to one-sided parking due to a buildup of on-street snow storage. They were concerned that Nicollet may also be reduced to one-sided parking, something they saw as detrimental to customer access, safety, and their bottom line. Restaurants, day care centers, and other local retail shops relying on on-street parking were concerned for the safety of their customers entering and exiting their cars. As president of NEHBA, I successfully advocated for the street width to be two (2) feet larger than recommended by City staff to accommodate for snow during winter and safety for bicyclists and car passengers throughout the year. This position went against street-width policy in Access Minneapolis, accepted Complete Street standards, and some public opinion (as well as Streets.MN contributors ). Through the discussion, we worked with business to see that the benefit of the narrowing the road way – improving safety for pedestrians and bikes, increased business opportunities on the sidewalk (patios!), and the public infrastructure investment – would ultimately benefit the community and their business.
The communication strategy that we use for construction mitigation is two-fold: first, a dialogue before and during construction with businesses and project partners is needed, and second, businesses have to get the word out to their customers and the community that they are open during and after construction. While communication is an integral part of the ‘educate’ and ‘advocate’ components of construction mitigation, communication is at the heart of our framework to deal with construction.
NEHBA gives and receives information to and from project partners as well as disseminates information to businesses in a timely manner using language a layperson can understand. We leverage our relationship with Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis to get construction updates to businesses, deal with any utility service disruptions, and promote available financial assistance. However, this is just one facet of communication during construction. The bigger communication task is to inform the consumer and the community about construction.
During construction projects, businesses want the community to know they are open, access is easy, and that their support of local businesses is essential. NEHBA does this in a number of ways; advocate for construction street signage with directions to businesses, work with businesses to develop individual plans on how best to communicate with their customers, and promote businesses through our own traditional and social media campaigns. During construction, something as simple as using blue for the color of directional signs to businesses rather than orange makes a big difference for customers. Our Facebook and Twitter accounts allow us to get information out in real time as well as respond to our followers questions about construction.
Our marketing efforts have been supported by the County and Minneapolis in a number of ways. They use their own communication departments to notify the media and community of construction projects and as well as to promote businesses under road construction. Minneapolis’ Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) Department has also supported our marketing work through Great Streets grants that supplements our marketing campaigns. In addition to Public Works project managers, CPED also has staff and programs that assist businesses through construction and infrastructure projects. This support has enabled even the smallest businesses to have great collaborative, marketing resources.
When travel behavior is modified for one week or an entire construction season, it is often hard for businesses to get the ‘drive-by’ customer back. Customers can be encouraged to readjust their travel behavior with the appeal of a reward, sale, or party. The celebration of successes during and at the end of a project raises awareness that shops are “open for business”, and it is an opportunity for the community as a whole to come together.
After the disruption of construction, a celebration is a uniting event; bringing project partners, businesses, and residents together. Sometimes it can be a round of drinks or ribbon cutting, and other times, a more monumental party is fitting. A celebration has the added benefit of media attention on local businesses and opportunities to share the story of construction. One such celebration is coming up on October 20 to celebration the opening of the Lyndale Bridge over Minnehaha Creek and completion of Lyndale road construction.
Looking forward, I know there are better ways for local and state governments to deal with construction impacts. I would like to see effective community engagement for construction projects from local government, akin to long range urban planning. While the City of Minneapolis has great policies on stakeholder engagement, projects do not always follow these engagement policies. Given the large costs of projects, is it reasonable to ask for a small percent to specifically go to construction mitigation efforts? Could special funding opportunities be available solely for construction related marketing, low-interest or delayed payment loans and grants to cover unexpected costs like areaway abandonment, and even property tax relief? Does interest in Context Sensitive Solutions by the transportation field lend a hand to businesses? As our infrastructure ages and requires improvements, these are topics for NEHBA and our partners to continue to consider in future projects.