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Elizabeth Avenue-area businesses look (and bounce) back

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When the long-awaited streetcar starts running in Charlotte's Elizabeth neighborhood, officials say it will change the landscape of the city and pump economic development in the veins of the Q.C. But when construction of the streetcar rail and road-widening project started in 2009, established businesses along the stretch of Elizabeth Avenue (1.5 miles, starting at the Transit Center and ending at Presbyterian Hospital) were crippled.

Construction blocked entrances to restaurants, destroyed pavement and made it hell for drivers to try and navigate. Establishments such as Starbucks Coffee, NoFo on Liz and Leo's Deli were forced to close and flee the area. But for the businesses that stayed, things are slowly turning around; however, it wasn't easy to weather construction and an economic recession.

At Carpe Diem, a restaurant that was smack dab in the middle of the road construction, things got hard, according to co-owner Bonnie Warford. "It went down considerably — probably 30 percent," she said of the business at the restaurant.

The biggest issue for Carpe Diem was getting people in the door during construction. "Different roads were closed at different times, so people had to come around the back often. Sometimes they had to come from one side and at times another side. Then at one point the entire street was closed," said Warford. "The only access was coming from behind us. It looked like such a giant construction zone that putting signage up to say 'this is how you get there' ... was still confusing."

Warford said they had to hire a valet to ease the parking malaise, an expense they paid for out of already shallow pockets. "At some point during that process, we got tired of beating our head against the wall. The road was being torn up, and it was a mess. And as much tidying up as we tried to do, it didn't change that fact of who wants to look at that while they're dining and who wants to walk through it?"

What kept the doors of Carpe Diem open was catering and a "hustling" spirit.

"When the road and the economy happened — and it happened at the same time — it was scary for all of us. We started putting a lot of energy into catering. And honestly, if we hadn't had catering at that time, I don't know if we would've made it."

Grubb Properties, which owns several buildings along Elizabeth Avenue, also felt the pinch of the construction.

"It was harder to lease," said vice president Todd Williams. "It was a double whammy: the construction and the economy. And it was a challenging time for our tenants. If you had one or the other, maybe everybody could've fared a little better during that period. You had customers that weren't coming in, not necessarily because of the roadwork, but because they couldn't afford to spend money to go out to eat. "

Some of the lease agreements that Grubb Properties worked out during the road construction were timed to start after the completion of the project. And, Williams said, his company worked with current tenants at the time to restructure leases and offer rent breaks because of the impact construction had on their businesses.

"We recognized the challenges they were having," said Williams. "There's no question that we were having to provide concessions to our tenants, and that has an impact on our income statement as well."

Business partners James Rickmond and Adam Whalen had to fight to let people know the popular nightclub and bar Loft 1523 was still open.

"A lot of individuals thought we had closed," Rickmond said. "Loft used to be the happening spot to go to in Charlotte, outside of Uptown and right off 277. Once that construction came in, you couldn't get in here."

Rickmond said, like Warford, that the road was so torn up that patrons had no idea how to enter the business or where to park. "It almost shut us down."

According to Rickmond, when he joined Loft 1523 in October, business was very slow, save for a few regulars. "We struggled a little bit and made it through the holidays," he said.

Now that the work is complete, businesses like Loft and Carpe Diem are starting to see a slight uptick. Grubb Properties leased space to the Paul Mitchell School, and the restaurant 1900 Mexican Grill opened at the tail end of the project.

"Our feeling is, what it's done for the street, as far as the finished product that's out there now, is far superior to what was out there before it started," said Williams. "Not only was it just a streetcar project, but we ran new water and sewer lines, storm drains, new on-street parking and new streetscape. There are improvements to that street today that are making it more pedestrian [friendly] and more urban. It will create the spine, if you will, for a district that we hope to build out."

For Warford, business at Carpe Diem is slowly picking up. She said since the construction has been completed, about 10 percent of the business has returned, though there's no way to determine if the resurgence is because the road is finished or the economy is getting better.

"Now, because the economy put everything in this area at standstill, we're just dealing with the normal stuff that all businesses are dealing with," she said. "Trying to make people spend their dollars with us."

Rickmond said Loft 1523 has seen an increase in private events at the club since the road reopened, and they're rebuilding the following they had prior to the construction. Business, he said, has picked up 70 percent.

"We were hurt," said Rickmond. "Right now, we're introducing ourselves back into the community."

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