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By Helmut Schmidt, Published September 02 2002

Businesses along 13th Avenue ready for customers to return

A summer of snarled construction traffic drove away customers and slashed profits at many businesses along Fargo's 13th Avenue South.

Some firms saw losses of 20, 30 and even 40 percent. Several cut back their payrolls.

Now, the maze of orange cones has cleared.

Traffic is light.

And business owners east of Interstate 29 have a simple message.

dPlease, come back.

"We need to get the word out to people. 'Hey, we're back up and running as far as access goes,' " said Tom Berg, assistant manager at Scheels All Sports. "That will help offset a lot of the business loss over the summer."

Scheels took their first hit to their bottom line two years ago, as construction on I-29 made it difficult for out-of-town sportsmen and athletes to get to the store, Berg said.

"A lot of customers told us they wouldn't be back until it was done," he said. "We're still seeing it affect business I would guess."

The reconstruction along 13th Avenue was extensive, affecting every business. But some were hurt more than others.

Fast-food outlets, car washes and restaurants suffered as people stayed away from construction hell.

Several small stores in the strip malls along the thoroughfare closed or relocated.

On the other hand, destination stores, like Scheels, and hotels held their own; some even gained.

Green Mill opened in 1997. The restaurant relies on its prime location and good access to thrive. Both advantages faded like smoke when the orange cones arrived.

"It was the lowest this store has ever been in five years … When people can't get here, it makes it difficult to sell them food," Manager Zach Sauerressig said. "The in-store sales were horrible."

The restaurant stayed afloat with the loyalty of Prairiewood area customers, he said.

Still, only one of the seven managers who were at the restaurant in the spring are still there.

"We're glad it's over," Sauerressig said.

Next door at Country Inn and Suites, business was up 15 percent.

"We had a great summer," said manager Liesa Gisvold. With several major events in Fargo, and widespread construction, "it could not affect every hotel."

Pearl Vision Center also saw its business improve, co-owner Don Gunhus said.

Still, growth could have been better.

"We're fortunate our business is largely due to people making appointments," Gunhus said. "I'm just glad it only happens once every 30 years."

The owners of Straus Clothing didn't lose their shirts in May and June, but it may have felt like it.

Customers didn't start to return until July and August, said co-owner Rick Stern.

"Our customers are a lot older than (those at) Scheels. And they told us they definitely didn't want to drive" on 13th Avenue. "So, they avoided the area."

Still, Stern takes it all in stride. His grandfather did business through World War I and the Depression. And his father started the Fargo store, then fought in World War II.

"I think we can stand four months of construction," he said. "We're like farmers. We always think the next season will be good."

Next door, Carpet World had a good summer.

"We're not an impulse. We're something people think about, save and do it," Manager Terry Meyer said.

Meyer said people forget the traffic jams that ruled pre-construction. He said the street is also safer.

"When it rained hard last night (Wednesday), we didn't have a big puddle in front of the store. So, what they did must be working," he said.

The folks at Dairy Queen, though, would call a lot more customers a "cool" treat.

The store that was the top Dairy Queen in North Dakota and one of the top 10 outlets in the United States, saw losses over the summer from 20 percent to 40 percent, Manager Jennifer Heupel said.

Lunch hours are good, she said. But fall and winter mean a drop in ice-cream sales.

"It would have been a lot better if it had ended in June," Heupel said.

Wendy's was also down between 20 and 22 percent, said assistant manager Aaron Patton.

The changing of traffic routes every day "really affected everything. We get our regulars, but that's about it."

Don's Car Wash took one of the biggest hits.

Business was down 30 percent said Duane Durr, president of Don's Car Washes. Normally, he keeps 100 employees on in the summer. This year, it was 80.

"The good news is a week from Monday they're going to cut the ribbon. The other good news is they're done six weeks early," Durr said.

"We're just thankful they started early this spring and they got it done."

Across the street at Applebees, Manager Matt Steinmetz said the start of the summer is now fading to a bad memory.

"We felt it the most when the south side of the road was closed," he said, which brought cuts in hours for employees.

"Thank God college started now. It definitely helps."

At Premiere Video, assistant manager Justin Francis said construction cut business 15 percent to 20 percent.

"Everybody that came in was a lot more frustrated," he said. "I think people have to start coming back to notice the roads."

Once they do come back, Scheels' Berg says they'll like the two-lane traffic each way, along with the turn lane.

"We'll probably see a lot of happy customers this fall," he said. "We're expecting a big 2003."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583