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Merchants Say They're Losing Money During Construction : As Light Rail Goes Up, Sales Go Down

August 04, 1988|MICHELE FUETSCH | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Steve Choe considers himself a lucky man that Mother's Day is not in July or August.

"The flower business in summer is slow anyway," said the florist, trying to be philosophical about the $1,200 to $1,300 in sales he thinks he lost in the last two weeks because the street and sidewalk on his block of Long Beach Boulevard are torn up by the light-rail construction project.

Edmund Heller felt not so lucky. The week before Memorial Day, usually the most profitable for Heller Tire Co., construction crews ripped up cement and asphalt in front of his building in the 2500 block of the boulevard.

"In the first three weeks," Heller said, "we lost $36,000 in business. . . . I got murdered."

Another Goodyear tire dealer on the boulevard, 20 blocks away, set sales records, Heller said.

"To this little family-operated business that has been here 35 years," he said, "it was economically disastrous.'

Six weeks went by, Heller said, before the work crews moved on to another stretch of the boulevard, which they are widening south of Willow Street to accommodate the light rail. The $752-million system, which is to begin operating in 1990, will start in downtown Long Beach and run up the center of the boulevard to Willow before moving west into Compton on its way to downtown Los Angeles.

James Willingham said the construction has cut sales by half at the four auto dealerships he owns on the boulevard. "The Subaru (dealership) dropped last month more than 50%," said Willingham, who also sells Saabs, Lincolns, Buicks, GMC trucks and British-made Sterlings.

Trouble-Shooter Hired

The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission is trying to minimize the financial impact on boulevard businesses, spokeswoman Erica Goebel said. It hired an on-site trouble-shooter to resolve problems that arise daily between businesses and contractors, and it is scheduling construction in an effort to diminish the impact at peak sales times.

For example, Goebel said, contractors are trying to work out schedules that avoid tearing up streets and sidewalks in front of car dealerships in the fall, when the new models come onto the market.

Store and business owners have kind words for the commission's efforts, saying construction crews and foremen have worked to lessen day-to-day impact. But, as Goebel acknowledges, construction on the boulevard will be constant for the next two years, and owners say their losses are already heavy. Jackhammers are tearing up sidewalks in front of shops that depend on walk-in traffic, and driveways are often blocked altogether at businesses that depend on easy automobile access.

When Kamal Abraham opened his convenience market three months ago in the new mini-mall at the corner of Hill Street and the boulevard, he counted on sales from the heavy automobile traffic on the boulevard. Instead, he has found himself dependent in recent weeks on walk-in trade from the surrounding neighborhood.

One entrance to the mall is closed during the construction, while the other is blocked from time to time, as it was on a recent morning while a cement truck emptied its load into the curb and gutter forms.

"The rent is killing me," said a frustrated Abraham, whose parking lot was empty. "Rent is almost $3,000 a month. The electric bill is $1,000, almost."

Business Down $50 First Day

At the doughnut shop next door, Linda and Sophanarith Chea waited for occasional walk-in customers willing to wind their way around the construction. Scarce, though, are the morning customers who used to wheel their cars into the parking lot and dash in for coffee and doughnuts on the way to work.

"It went down $50 the first day," Linda Chea said of sales. "Yesterday, it went down $70."

Workmen first told her that construction in front of the mall would take only two weeks. "They told me yesterday," she said, "two more weeks. I told them, 'Please, hurry.' "

Bill Lee, who manages Bowl Liquor in the boulevard's 2200 block, said: "There are customers that we usually see every day that (now) don't even stop. They just keep right on going, right on to the next stop, I suppose."

The store's owner, Claire Harris, said the only thing that has saved her from financial calamity is that the liquor store stays open at night, when the construction is shut down.

"If we weren't open at night," Harris said, "it would have been a disaster. We would have been down 85%." As it is, she says, sales have been off 25% to 40%.

Business owners on the boulevard have mixed views about their futures after the light-rail system starts operating. Some owners, such as florist Choe and his wife, Janet, believe that the rail line will increase business in their 2-year-old flower shop.

Harris is banking on the same thing for her liquor store. "That's what I've waited eight years to see," she said. "I'm hoping very much for some high-rise office building to go in across the street."

The boulevard is known largely as an automobile dealership row, and the dealers fought bitterly to keep the rail line from coming their way. They said it would hurt businesses that depend on drive-in traffic.

Also, in recent years, more low-income residents have moved into the neighborhood around the dealerships, and dealers believe that has made it harder for them to draw customers to the area. Many dealers, along with some related businesses, are planning to leave.

Heller, who has taken his son, Larry, into the tire business, says he is exploring new locations. C. Bob Autrey says he is is moving his Mazda dealership to Signal Hill.

When Signal Hill decided to develop an auto mall, Long Beach officials decided to follow suit so the city would not lose the sales tax revenue produced by the dealerships. Long Beach's auto mall will be off the San Diego Freeway, and the first tenants may include Willingham's four dealerships. He says he wants to leave Long Beach Boulevard too.

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