When you arrive in the Lincoln District, where the streets have been torn up for months because of the multimillion dollar Lincoln Revitalization Project, prominently displayed signs indicate that businesses are indeed open during construction.
Many local business owners add a caveat: Just barely.
“It’s going to be gorgeous when it’s done, but in the meantime, when you have the better part of a year with no customers — or very few customers — then it’s really tough on the old pocket book,” said Jennifer Sallee, an owner and manager of Lincoln Hardware.
“It’s taken a big toll, a big toll, but we’ve survived,” Sallee added Tuesday, standing next to a potting-soil display inside her business, which has been in the Lincoln District 89 years.
She worries other Lincoln District businesses won’t be as lucky.
If there’s a theme for many small local business owners in Lincoln, it’s just that — one of survival, by any means possible.
Everyone I spoke to during a recent afternoon traversing South 38th Street was supportive of the project’s ultimate goal — for good reason.
They look forward to Lincoln being transformed into a destination that’s friendly to pedestrians and businesses alike. They welcome the traffic calming measures, the crosswalks, the landscaping and the utility improvements. Most of all, they’re happy to see their neighborhood finally getting the attention from the city they feel it deserves.
At the same time, they’d like the work to be done soon, because the project — which began in July 2017 and is scheduled to be completed, at least along 38th Street, by July of this year — has been economically brutal to endure.
“Everybody who comes here, they complain about it,” said Aaron Wong from behind the counter of An Hing Co. — a Chinese herb shop that’s been in the district since the 1990s.
“They say, ‘Oh, I try to get here, but it’s so hard.’ Everybody is saying that. Every day you hear it,” Wong said. “It’s a tough to hang in and try to get through it. It’s really impacting the business.”
"It hurt business a lot in this area," added Kevin Le, who has owned and operated the well-known restaurant Vien Dong for over two decades. Le said he's experienced a 30- to 40-percent drop in business since construction started, a decline he attributed to a lack of parking.
Stories like this are nothing new. Every time the city undertakes a major streetscape project, inconvenienced local businesses take an economic hit. Nearby parking evaporates, and customers looking to avoid the hassle shop elsewhere.
Still, the situation in Lincoln feels slightly different. The neighborhood is unquestionably Tacoma’s most unique and diverse business district. Making sure the small local shops and restaurants that call it home pull through the construction and headaches has always been a key objective, according to Debbie Bingham, who oversees the Lincoln District Revitalization project for the city.
“We do understand, especially in this project, that it was super impactful to the businesses,” Bingham said. “And we know that. From the very beginning, the goal was for no business to shut down.”
Communication, Bingham said, is key.
She notes the project office the city opened in the district, where My Nguyen, who is fluent in Vietnamese, has helped bridge the obvious cultural and language gap. She points to the construction-survival manual the city produced, available to local business owners in print and online.
Bingham also referenced the other lengths the city has undertaken, including signage, working with local artists to draw people to the district, dispatching TV Tacoma crews to highlight the area’s businesses, opening up parking at Lincoln High School during non-school hours and supporting the annual Lincoln District Lunar New Year Celebration.
At the end of the day, Bingham believes the work will be worth it. She noted several new businesses that have opened or will soon open, including a new Starbucks location at the corner of 38th and South G Street.
“I think they see the future of Lincoln,” Bingham said. “They think it’s worth being there, and they know that this project is going to have a positive impact on the area.”
Inside Big Vac Inc., the longstanding vacuum and janitorial supply store just off 38th and Thompson, manager Tom Pruett certainly hopes that’s the case. He’s seen business decline by 75 to 80 percent since construction started.
“It’s kind of tough when you do a $40 day,” Pruett said. “I was seriously thinking about just closing up during this construction, and hopefully my business would still be here when I came back, but it’s one of those things you just can’t do.”
Pruett then looks across the street — where work is wrapping up — and sees hope for the future.
“It’ll be beautiful. They’ve got nice new sidewalks. They’ve got a drinking fountain over there, with a thing for watering your dog,” he said. “It’s going to be very nice. It’s just getting to that stage.”
Before leaving, I asked Pruett if he had anything to add. He didn’t miss a beat.
“If you have a problem with your vacuum cleaner,” he said with a smile, “you can always bring them to me.”