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Delmar Loop Trolley takes toll on businesses after years of delays

The Loop Trolley during a test drive on June 13, 2018.
Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Business owners in the Delmar Loop have been taxed for 10 years to support the trolley that remains in test mode, with no start date in sight.

Officials of the Loop Trolley Company say there will be a “soft opening” of the Delmar Loop Trolley soon with a big celebration and official launch to follow.

Sound familiar?

The 2.2 mile project has been delayed repeatedly by lack of equipment, lack of training and lack of money.

Originally projected to cost $43 million a decade ago, there’s been no accounting for the years of delays. The trolley has become the brunt of jokes and worse. Many Loop business owners blame the project for a decline in visitors, reduced parking and lost revenue. Empty storefronts along Delmar Boulevard are evidence that these have been hard times for local businesses — especially those that have helped define the unique district for decades.

Joe Edwards, owner of Blueberry Hill, the Pageant, Moonrise Hotel and many other properties along Delmar, is credited with turning the Loop from a gritty neighborhood that connects the West End of St. Louis to University City that many avoided, to a destination for students, tourists and residents from throughout the region.

For the past 20 years, Edwards also has devoted time to promoting his plan for a fixed-track, electric rail route with vintage streetcars that would connect the Loop to Forest Park.

“Well for the first many years,” Edwards said in a recent interview, “Everyone was in favor of it and thought it was wonderful.”

Edwards slowly gathered support from groups like Citizens for Modern Transit and Bi-State Development. He secured grants from the East-West Gateway Council of Governments and the Missouri Department of Transportation to purchase and restore vintage trolley cars.

Then in 2011, a $25 million grant from the Federal Transit Authority — expected to cover half the cost of the project — was the green light Edwards needed to move forward.

There were some critics.

“When these three or four people filed a lawsuit about five years ago to try to stop it, they stirred up a lot of doubt in some people's minds,” Edwards said. “Most people have come up to me on the street and are really excited about it. They can't wait to ride it.”

The court ruled in favor of the Loop Trolley Company. But then the years of delays began.

Major construction was completed in 2016.

By then, Mike Weiss said he couldn’t afford to stay in business in the Loop. After 22 years on Delmar, the owner of Big Shark Bicycles moved his shop to Richmond Heights.

“We were emotional about it. We did not want to leave. We loved the Loop. We felt that it was part of our identity.”

Weiss said there were many factors that led to the decision to move.

Parking and access to his shop during 18 months of construction was extremely difficult. And there was the special transit district tax, earmarked for trolley construction, imposed in 2008. It pushed the total sales tax to nearly 12 percent, which hurt his ability to close the sale on big ticket items.

Weiss said he held on as long as he could. He laid off three full-time employees to make ends meet during the downturn. He wasn’t alone, more than 20 stores have closed or moved since the trolley construction began.

“Those small business owners left because they had to, or closed because they had to,” Weiss said . “Those decisions are really, really hard to make.”

Family-owned Al-Tarboush deli opened in the Loop two decades ago after owner Salman Bathani, immigrated from Lebanon.

Even though sales were cut in half during the trolley construction and haven’t rebounded, Bathani wants to stay in the Loop and keep the business in the family.

“You know, my dad wants me to take this place over,” said Fabbio Bathani, Salman’s son. “I’m very iffy because of this situation. If he had asked me five years ago, it would have been gladly, there was nothing better than the Loop.”

Edwards views the losses and empty storefronts as business as usual.

“Things go in cycles,” he said. “It's not a concern of mine because it does happen. It happens all around St. Louis or any other city for that matter. After the holiday season is over and winter is over, the ones that were struggling leave or there are ones that just want to retire.

But it wasn’t just owners ready for a change of life that disappeared. National chains like Panera and Noodles & Co. were among the businesses to exit after construction began.

Only one Loop owner, out of dozens interviewed for this report, said her business did not suffer during trolley construction.

In fact, Kelly von Plonski said she was shocked at what happened when the construction began in front of her shop, Subterranean Books.

“I was prepared for the worst. And every day the netting was up on our block, our sales doubled over the previous year.” Her theory: People who were used to driving were forced to walk during construction and discovered her book shop.

Rocket Fizz was not so lucky. The novelty store that sells vintage brands of candy and sodas was one of the retail victims on Delmar in 2017.

The franchise even received one of the hardship loans doled out by the University City government to help businesses affected by the trolley construction.

The city offered a total of $110,000 in loans that would be forgivable if the recipient stayed in the Loop for three more years.

Bill Sallada, who lives in North Carolina, was recruited by Edwards this year to re-open the candy store. He owns several Rocket Fizz franchises around the country.

Sallada had never been to St. Louis before he agreed to revive the shop in April 2018.

“There’s quite a few more vacancies than there used to be, and foot traffic is significantly down from three to four years ago according to my manager. Hopefully things will get back to the way they were.”

Tom Schmidt opened his restaurant, Salt and Smoke, in the Loop four years ago. It’s one of two barbeque restaurants Schmidt owns in the region, with a third on the way. He’s bullish on the Loop and points to other anchor restaurants that have grown from their roots on Delmar: Pi, Mission Taco, Seoul Taco and Fitz’s.

“I think what the trolley will do is help insulate us against inevitable ups and downs that occur for any retail district. I think the trolley will help keep more people here and give more reasons to come experience this really beautiful historic transportation system.”

Schmidt serves on the boards of the West Loop Special Business District and the Loop Trolley Company — Edwards is chairman of both groups.

Edwards is always the optimist when it comes to his trolley project. It's going to be up and running in a number of weeks and it's going to be so exciting here.”

Anxious business owners are waiting.


Follow Melody on Twitter @melodybird