As downtown pedestrians in Grand Forks spent Monday maneuvering their way around orange cones and detour signs, retailers and other organizations along DeMers Avenue began navigating what they expect to be a summer of reduced foot traffic amid construction.
Roadwork will last until around mid-November on the nearly $9.9 million state-led project, according to state officials. Most shop-owners and staff who spoke with the Herald Monday said so far they've been able to conduct business as usual.
“It is very accessible and doable,” Kittsona co-owner Nicole Johnson said of shopping downtown. “It worked just fine today and I feel like it’s not nearly as bad as anyone’s anticipating.”
Some shop-owners are expecting more impact from the project than others.
At the corner of DeMers Avenue and North Fourth Street, Callie and Roman Schmidt of Ann Love, a clothing store at the city-owned Corporate Center on that block, have requested that the city defer some of its rent.
Ann Love opened its first brick-and-mortar site at 402 DeMers Avenue in 2018. In a staff memo to the city of Grand Forks, the Schmidts explained how important this second summer typically would be for growing foot traffic downtown, if not for the reconstruction.
“We understand that we are a new business downtown Grand Forks and it takes time to build a clientele,” the memo said, “but at a very critical time for Ann Love’s numbers to start increasing is when the construction project is planned to take over the downtown area.”
“Starting in May to August, really, is kind of our hot months, between school getting out and kids returning to school,” Roman Schmidt said to the Grand Forks Growth Fund Committee Monday night.
Looking at the store's numbers during April, when the Sorlie bridge was closed for flooding, Roman Schmidt said the store only saw half the foot traffic it did in April 2018.
Johnson, whose Kittsona location rents space from the city in the same building, said she has had conversations with the city but she’s not requesting a deferral at this time. Deputy Community Development Director Meredith Richards said Tuesday she anticipates a request from Johnson soon.
“The retail business is kind of struggling in Grand Forks anyway,” Richards said, adding this is simply a deferral and not a reduction for rent.
Downtown Development Association Director Blue Weber said for some restaurants and shops, the additional 50 to 100 construction workers downtown will provide access to a rare market.
“They’ll have construction going on from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” said Weber, who has been gathering information on workers from construction company Strata Corp. “That’s a long time of additional amount of people downtown working. We’re trying to let the businesses know, ‘Hey! Here’s some customers, let’s help you grab them.’”
Earlier this month, the DDA officially kicked off its 2020 Vision Campaign to raise awareness for events and businesses downtown throughout construction. On Tuesday, May 14, the group held its first pop-up event of the summer. Those will continue on a biweekly basis, Weber said, and they'll include downtown tours and a series of downtown-focused “cash mobs.”
“They’re very similar to flash mobs, in the sense that you get about anywhere from 30 to 50 people together,” Weber said. “You can meet other people, but also to do some shopping that they maybe wouldn’t usually be doing, or that they would be doing somewhere perhaps on Amazon that isn’t actually investing any money back into our culture, into our economy here.”
The next cash mob will meet at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, May 22, in Town Square, Weber said, before heading over to True Colors at 8 S 3rd St. around 5:15 p.m.
The DDA also will host public “coffee updates” with leaders of the various construction projects happening downtown this summer. The next update will be on June 3.
True Colors is a cash and consignment shop owned by the Arc, Upper Valley, a nonprofit located at 2500 DeMers Avenue.
“We’re nervous about how shopping will be this summer,” said Rachel Hafner, executive director for the Arc, Upper Valley.
True Colors will remain fairly visible and maintain most of its access on South Third Street, Hafner said, but she and director of Operations Kate Lewandowski are expecting to take a hit in foot traffic with the Farmer’s Market being relocated to the Lyon's Auto Garage site for the summer. According to Lewandowski, True Colors gets much of its summer traffic through the Farmer’s Market.
“My thing really is just the parking,” said Lewandowski. “But I think that’s an issue even when DeMers isn’t shut down. We’ve already had people come in today with items. If somebody really wants to come in, I think they will find a spot and park.”