Jason Fletcher estimates that his eponymous ice cream and coffee shop has lost more than $20,000 as a result of road construction in the Nicollet Island-East Bank neighborhood.

Fletcher’s Ice Cream & Cafe near the corner of Hennepin and University avenues isn’t the only business that’s been hurting since major work began in April. That’s why the Nicollet Island-East Bank Neighborhood Association, or NIEBNA, is stepping in to support small businesses.

A handful of entrepreneurs including Fletcher attended an initial meeting on May 20 intended to provide updates and resources to businesses impacted by the project, which spans roughly eight blocks of Hennepin and First avenues.

“We’re all small businesses, we don’t have three to five months of reserve cash to throw at this problem,” Fletcher said. He wondered whether it’s possible for the City to provide financial support to help businesses get through this rough patch.

Over the past couple of weeks, Hennepin County started placing bright orange “open for business” signs around the impacted area, and NIEBNA launched a monthly business forum to foster collaboration, communication, and problem-solving among neighborhood businesses. 

Project manager Sam Ellison of Bolton Menk gave a construction update at the May 20 meeting. 

Generally, crews have been working south to north on Hennepin Avenue and north to south on First Avenue, with traffic initially reduced to one lane on each of the parallel streets. So far, it’s mostly involved storm sewer work on one-way streets, and it’s been a tricky process.

“That’s one of the biggest issues we're having right now; it's hard to direct traffic properly and kind of manage that whole thing when everything is backed up,” Ellison said, adding that crews were working to get a second lane open on First Avenue. The First Avenue and Fourth Street intersection “is a big issue for the community and businesses, and we definitely know that, so we're hoping to get some progress done first to try to alleviate a lot of those issues.”

Mill City Laser opened at 322 E. Hennepin Ave. in January and it’s already having to navigate road construction right outside its storefront. Photo by Brianna Kelly

Throughout the meeting, business owners raised concerns, shared ideas, and spoke about the hurdles that they’re facing due to construction.

Studio ME Fitness owner Megan Cooper said it’s been difficult for members of her gym to exit the parking ramp at First Avenue and Fourth Street since traffic has been so backed up. “They’ll be sitting there for like 20 minutes in the morning trying to get out,” she said. Cooper requested additional traffic control at the intersection to direct cars in a safe manner.

Mill City Laser owner Hannah Aderinkomi pointed out how the sidewalk closures are creating an unsafe situation for pedestrians crossing some of the city’s busiest streets and intersections.

She asked whether it was possible for Hennepin County to put out orange construction signs that say businesses are open and appreciate your patronage during construction, which she had seen along Hennepin Avenue in the Uptown neighborhood. Aderinkomi recently posted a yellow sign in Mill City Laser’s window advertising the “construction work special,” a free session for new members who join now through August. “FYI, we can laser construction workers too,” the sign reads. 

Nicollet Island-East Bank businesses are also using social media to ask customers to visit them and offer limited-time discounts or specials. Zhora Darling is running a new late-night happy hour, with half-priced draft beers, well drinks, and bottles of wine, Sunday through Wednesday from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. until construction is done.

“Many businesses in Minneapolis have been hit hard by the citywide street construction and we are definitely one of them,” Zhora Darling said in a recent Instagram post announcing the late-night happy hour.

Some businesses are getting even more creative to get customers through their doors. Curry Corner has been handing out samples of Indian food to passersby, producing videos of people’s reactions, and sharing them on the restaurant’s Instagram account.

Also at the May 20 meeting, Brandon Bell of Hennepin County presented on the Elevate Hennepin initiative, which connects business owners to resources including 40 business advisors with different specialties, and Mikhala Febel Stutzman of Yelp shared tips for businesses on the platform.

NIEBNA plans to continue advocating for small business owners impacted by construction. Its new business forum meets the first Monday of each month at Riverplace, 43 Main St. SE, in the Garamond Training Room. The meetings are also livestreamed over Zoom.

Fletcher said such monthly meetings could help inform business owners sooner about major projects so they don’t feel so blindsided in the future.

Road construction along Hennepin and First avenues in the Nicollet Island-East Bank neighborhood is on track to wrap up by November. Landscaping is planned for next spring.