(905) 545-1188   

Hamilton Business: LRT lessons from Kitchener-Waterloo

Posted: May 27, 2016

Time to get ready for construction/disruption



Hamilton Spectator

What does your LRT survival strategy look like?

It could include something as simple as using pink flamingoes to guide customers to your door, or as elaborate as travelling to clients instead of them coming to you.

But one thing’s for sure — you’ve got to be creative.

Major construction on Hamilton’s $1-billion light rail transit line may not begin until 2019, but local experts say business owners should start preparing now.

“If your lease is coming up … think about whether you are able to physically survive it,” said president and CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce Keanin Loomis. “If you’re coming to the end of your career, maybe this would precipitate an early retirement.

“For every person it’s going to be a different coping mechanism, but everybody is going to have to create one.”

TOPIC: Hamilton Business

For some businesses in Hamilton, the looming construction project will be of a different magnitude than anything they’ve previously experienced, said Paul Johnson, director of LRT project co-ordination for the city.

Workers will be digging through the street as they build the 11-kilometre route, a project expected to take “months, not weeks,” said Johnson, previously the city’s director of corporate initiatives.

We’re still three years out from major LRT work, and it will be 2024 at the earliest before riders will be able to hop aboard a light rail car on the line expected to run from McMaster University to the Queenston traffic circle.

By comparison, Tim Hortons Field was a $145-million stadium project that began with the demolition of Ivor Wynne Stadium in late 2012. Work was supposed to wrap up by the end of June 2014, but the stadium was turned over to the city in May 2015 still unfinished.

So it’s a good time to start thinking about a survival plan, whether that’s tucking money away or thinking about how customers can gain access to their location if the storefront is blocked, Loomis said.

“It’s important for us to start to talk about this early and often and to share the stories of what’s going on in K-W, in Eglinton (Toronto) and as well to even take some of our own local examples,” he said.

Kitchener-Waterloo businesses can offer some signposts. They are knee-deep in it, with construction on a light rail transit line, ION, underway since 2014. It’s expected to wrap up in 2017.

“We’ve had to adjust quite a bit,” said Mike Williamson, owner of Central Fresh Market. “We’re fortunate we’re still here.”

The Kitchener grocery store has lost about 3,000 customers and has cut employees’ hours by about 300 each week. Last year, volume was down about 20 per cent overall, resulting in a $3-million loss in sales, Williamson said.

Getting deliveries of stock to the store has also been a struggle.

“It’s just become more and more and more difficult,” he said.

Patti Brooks, executive director of the UpTown Waterloo BIA, said while some businesses in her area have reported lower sales, others have seen an increase — possibly due to loyal customers and people making an effort to shop local during construction.

For Keflet Shekedin of Onroad Driving School, the number of students in his driving education classes has dropped so much that his course, previously held weekly, now runs once a month. To help boost uptake, Shekedin started driving several students to and from class, which has meant logging up to 500 kilometres for each session.

Tyson Reiser — owner of Café Pyrus — turned to a small army of pink plastic flamingoes. He put them up when the sidewalk outside his restaurant started getting ripped up, and soon enough, the buzz around these plastic birds started to spread on social media.

“They were a way-finding process. They were a way to identify with us as a location.”

They sometimes disappeared, but Reiser said they didn’t cost much.

But it’s not just the economic effects that have some Hamilton businesses worried.

When the city recently unveiled the latest designs for the 13-stop line, businesses in the International Village expected a payoff in the form of an LRT stop, the area’s BIA executive director Susie Braithwaite said.

Instead, the closest places to hop on are at Victoria and Catharine streets.

“Years of pain and anguish for what? … A plan that doesn’t even put us on the map,” she said.

At this point, it’s not known whether the 150 businesses in the International Village will even have front-door access to their buildings during construction. In case they don’t, businesses on King Street downtown are test-driving an alley rejuvenation project, including allowing access and deliveries through back doors.

This type of rear-door entrance won’t be possible for all businesses, but for some, it’s already in place. Bruno’s Schools of Hair Design has signage advertising its business and an entrance at its back door.

Rear-door entry has been crucial to Central Fresh Market’s survival, said Williamson.

“We would be closed if we didn’t have that back entrance,” he said, noting that’s how 60 to 70 per cent of his customers are getting into the store.

A picture is also emerging about the potential impact of LRT construction on properties along the planned route. Metrolinx — which will operate the city’s light rail transit line — will have to buy or expropriate parts of approximately 250 of them.

The impact on most of the properties is considered minor, such as “shaving” the corner off a lot or slicing off a metre of frontage, Johnson said recently.

But for 60 to 70 others, the result could be larger, and in extreme cases could include knocking down an entire building.

It’s clear there are still many unknowns about the project, with few local comparisons to draw from. But one recent example is the Concession Street resurfacing. For almost nine months last year, the eight-block stretch from Upper Wentworth Street to Upper Sherman Avenue was torn up and closed to traffic.

Loomis thought it was important to ask a business owner from Concession to speak to the chamber’s LRT task force about “how difficult it was to live through that resurfacing project.”

The idea first struck him when visiting Papa Leo’s Restaurant for a sandwich. When he called over to place an order for pickup, owner Leo Santos reminded him about the construction and offered alternative directions on how to get there and where to park.

“It was obvious to me that he had implemented his own mitigation managers,” Loomis said. “It was about — with every phone call — communicating to the client, ‘you’re going to encounter some disruption, here’s your workaround.'”

For Santos, this model worked. During the construction, he said he didn’t lose money over previous years, but his revenue didn’t increase either, despite the growth he experienced in the previous four years since opening.

“I was on Twitter every day. I was connecting with every single conversation that was happening in our city … I always hashtagged Concession Street as a destination,” he said.

This way of educating customers was also embraced by Kitchener climbing gym Grand River Rocks. With their business surrounded by LRT construction and access to their location changing on a sometimes daily basis, co-owner Scotty Hamill said they realized they had to help customers find their way.

So every day or few days — depending on when access changed — they would post a new map on their Facebook page and website that people could check before they came out for a climb.

“We were always trying to keep our customers aware of when the construction was going to start and how long it was going to be,” Hamill said.

Like Papa Leo’s, Grand River Rocks hasn’t seen a decline in revenue during the construction — something Hamill attributes, in part, to being the only climbing gym in town.

But at Central Fresh Market, Williamson said he hasn’t been so lucky. His only saving grace was the signage he ordered — despite the region and the city initially telling him he was breaking bylaws by posting it.

They kept a close watch, too. Someone from the store would go around the site each day — sometimes twice — to make sure the signs showing how to get to his store were still up.

In Hamilton, there may need to be a discussion to “relax” certain bylaws, said LRT co-ordinator Johnson. He anticipates having that conversation once construction begins and business owners figure out what might be necessary to help customers get to them.

To stay connected with businesses along the route, a city team will be dropping by twice a year until the LRT work is finished, said Johnson. He encourages them to build up their network of customers and start to communicate with them well ahead of construction.

He said it’s also important for businesses to take a hard look at their operating model and start thinking about how they can prepare for weathering the “down periods.”

“It’s hard to say it’s going to be the same business” during construction, he added. “We want to limit the pain.”

The International Village BIA’s Braithwaite said she’s looking at other commercial areas that have gone through similar projects and seeing how they’ve handled things. “This year — 2016 — is basically the year of research.”

Bryan Prince Bookseller began last fall, launching a delivery service that sees books brought to customers within the city limits and as far afield as Dunnville, and Caledonia on the other side, for a small charge.

Part of the reason is because life is busy and sometimes gets in the way of book buying, says co-owner Tracey Higgins. It’s also in anticipation of LRT construction, which could hamper access to the King Street West store.

“We thought, let people know way in advance that if you can’t get to us, we’ll come to you,” Higgins said. “I’ll drive around all over the city.”

 npaddon@thespec.com905-526-2420 | @NatatTheSpec

—with files from Matthew Van Dongen