There have been times this summer when business owner Steven Salamone and his staff would stand inside his pizza shop on North Tacoma Avenue and stare out at a street empty of cars and people.
Salamone’s business, Salamone’s Pizza, and other shops in Tacoma’s Stadium District are bordered by construction from Sound Transit’s light rail extension project.
He told The News Tribune workers have completely closed the street outside his shop four times, staunching business flow to the point that it’s making a significant financial impact.
“This is a massive business interruption,” Salamone said Wednesday. “My neighbors are closing early. They’re laying people off. They’re shortening people’s hours.”
Salamone, who opened his business last August, said he’s lost $60,000 over the last three months due to construction impacts.
“I feel like I’m kind of getting squashed here,” he said.
He’s not alone. Employees from The Harvester, Shake Shake Shake and Stadium Thriftway have all spoken out about financial losses and want to see something change.
Representatives from Sound Transit and the city of Tacoma say they’re discussing what they can do to help businesses there.
“We understand the frustration business owners are having, and we want to continue to have a constructive dialogue with them to minimize the impacts the best,” Sound Transit spokesperson Scott Thompson told The News Tribune.
Mike Hargreaves, owner of Stadium Thriftway, has been in discussions with the city about a possible B&O tax credit for affected businesses.
“I think this is a chance for our city to take care of our businesses,” Hargreaves said. “The last thing I want to do is spend my time and effort getting an attorney and fighting the city that I love.”
The light rail extension
The project under fire is part of Sound Transit’s $170 million project to extend the Tacoma Link 2.4 miles from the Theater District to St. Joseph Medical Center on Hilltop, adding six stations along the way.
The project is expected to be completed in 2022 if all goes according to schedule.
Construction first began in the fall of 2018, but talk of the project dates back more than a decade.
“We’ve been talking to that community for a long time about where that project is going,” Thompson said.
Sound Transit’s been in dialogue with the businesses for several months about construction concerns, ever since the North E Street and North 1st Street in front of Stadium High School were closed for repairs in June.
“The blockage in front of the high school has probably been more impactful than everything because it changes people’s driving habits,” Hargreave said.
Sound Transit recognizes the project is more intense than other projects because it requires laying new track.
“You’re moving traffic around, you’ve got to close off roads and side streets,” Thompson said.
Once it’s completed, the link will attract more people, Thompson added. By 2026, the link is expected to have 2,000 to 4,000 daily riders.
“At the end of the day, there’s going to be a great benefit,” Thompson said. “It’s going to bring more people to their businesses.”
Salamone said he knew about the project when he decided to open his restaurant there.
“I was (aware), but again, it’s a freight train — you can’t stop it,” Salamone said.
The Harvester restaurant manager Jennifer Ploof estimates the business’ losses to be upwards of tens of thousands of dollars due to impacts of the project.
The Harvester, which is located across the street from Salamone’s Pizza on North Tacoma Avenue, has been around for about 50 years.
“Sales are down 30 percent,” Ploof said.
To compensate, the restaurant has started closing at 3 p.m. instead of midnight.
“Breakfast and lunch are our bread and butter anyway, so we’re doing okay, but it’s definitely taken a toll on the profits,” Ploof said.
Hargreave, who’s been running Stadium Thriftway since 1986, said he decided not to change any hours for his employees but has accrued $140,000 in business losses compared to previous years.
Sean Mills, kitchen manager at restaurant Shake Shake Shake, said there’s no parking for customers and that it appears businesses are closed from construction. He estimates a $10,000 loss per week.
“It’s nowhere close to what we usually make in the summers,” Mills said.
Stadium District business owners asked the City Council for help Tuesday.
One of them was Hargreave.
“This has been financially devastating to the business community,” he told the council.
Expecting business impacts, Sound Transit launched “Loyal to the Local,” a marketing program meant to remind people that businesses in Hilltop and the Stadium District are still open despite construction.
Business owners want to see a financial solution, but Thompson said Sound Transit giving the businesses any money is against state law as a gifting of public funds.
Hargreave has since been in touch with city leaders and feels they support a solution he proposed, which would exempt businesses impacted by the project from paying city B&O taxes until they can “recoup their losses.”
Hargreave said Sound Transit should be required to put a line item amount in its financial planning for projects that would account for business impacts.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said the city is exploring other options.
City Councilman Robert Thoms echoed the sentiment, adding that those solutions could come from either Sound Transit or through council intervention.
“We’re going to make sure the next 10 years of our relationship with the construction side of Sound Transit is grounded in the reality of what’s happening in our community,” Thoms said.
Business owners say they want to prevent the same losses from happening to other businesses impacted by Sound Transit projects.
“I’m not fighting this fight just for me and my neighbors,” Salamone said. “The way we view Sound Transit, and their projects from now, ‘til forever, as long as they’re in existence, we need to include this as a part of the project costs.”