By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Just as St. Paul retailers began recovering from an average 30 percent loss in sales during the new $1 billion light rail line’s construction, dozens of businesses received a bill from the city’s Office of Financial Services for street improvements tied to the construction of the 11-mile-long line.
“I think it sucks, but you have to pay for it, you know?” said Evangelos Hatzistamoulos, who received a $1,585.82 tax notice for the curbside work outside the Best Steak House.
Hundreds of St. Paul property owners were assessed some $2.3 million for their share of more than $16 million in upgraded street lighting, curbs and sidewalks. No wonder they call it the “Green Line.”
“I didn’t even open it. I handed it to my wife and said, ’you know what? Don’t pay it. Let them put it on the taxes for 20 years,’” said Skip Brist, owner since 1976 of American Radiator and AC, the last radiator shop in St. Paul. The damage? $3,428.80.
“When you’re talking about a little garage like mine, we have two stalls, the volume isn’t there anymore. In the end, none of it makes any sense.”
The timing trips up small business owners still trying to claw back from the downturn in revenue during construction along the University Avenue corridor.
“Everybody knows what the businesses around here have been, very slow when they were digging around here and we lost a lot,” said Mohamed Salah, whose Ashama Grocery and Meat Market faces a $6,857.60 assessment. “It’s almost close to $7,000. It’s too much. So I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
The list of assessments totals 137 pages compiled in two documents that reveal even nonprofits and churches take a substantial financial hit. Examples include Deeper Life Bible Church ($16,587), Goodwill Industries ($14,743), St. John’s Hospital ($11,615), Lao Family Community of Minnesota ($10,715) and St. Paul YMCA ($8,400).
Numerous government entities also get socked by the city, assessed for about $155,000 of the total improvements. Agencies where taxpayers took a hit include Independent School District 625 ($31,116), the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District ($23,787), Port Authority of St. Paul ($9,700), Metropolitan Council ($6,938) and the St. Paul Library ($5,700).
Companies with major properties got the biggest bills, including Menard’s ($35,230), Dayton Hudson ($19,758), Kline Volvo ($17,015), McDonald’s ($14,700) and Holiday Station Stores ($8,572).
One of the most expensive assessments of all went to the League of Minnesota Cities, a local government advocacy and lobbying group billed for $32,573.
“One of the reasons we have a relatively high bill is the fact we own the entire block, basically. So, I’m not all that surprised it’s on the high side,” said Tom Grundhoefer, LMC General Counsel. “…I guess I’d like to think that the whole light rail project has probably enhanced the development potential of the block.”
A decline in street parking spaces and less traffic, however, leaves owners of small businesses like Ashama Grocery wondering whether they will be able to afford the assessment.
”Nothing has changed yet. It hasn’t changed any and I don’t see it changing,” said Salah, whose store opened in 2003. “When they were digging in front of the door, it was bad for us. It’s not what it was before.”
Light rail will never deliver customers to the door of Skip Brist’s radiator shop, the last one still in business in St. Paul. His assessment only deepened the 60-year-old businessman’s determination to never ride the train, even for free during the track’s debut.
“I would not ever ride on it. There’s no reason to ride on it,” said Brist. “How do you get to Rosemount on the train? How do you get home by 5:30 to take Sally or Johnny to hockey or soccer or church activities? How do you do that? You can’t.”
So will these small business owners show up at the public meeting Wednesday to challenge their assessments?
“I’m going to pay it, because challenging it is a waste of time. It’s time we don’t have. It’s not going to work,” said steak house owner Evangelos Hatzistamoulos, whose business has begun to pick up. “We’d go down to the city and we’re going to yell and we’re going to scream that they’re crooks and this and that, but at the end of the day we’re still going to pay the $1,505.”