Businesses rebound after streetcar construction

A new survey will gauge their experiences since May

Downtown development map (click to enlarge)

Installing the streetcar tracks and replacing decades’ old water mains was disruptive to some businesses along the route.

This fall the Downtown Council and KC BizCare (the City’s business customer service center) are collaborating on an email survey of about 70 businesses since the streetcar began operating. “It’s a way to take the temperature and ask ‘What’s been your experience so far?’” says John Pajor, BizCare director. “We’ll analyze issues and identify solutions depending on the comments that surface.”

Business owners’ experiences will vary, but a pre-survey sampling shows that many already are finding a positive difference:

Pat Carroll runs a family business called Gallup Map at 1733 Main St. At first he was ambivalent about the streetcar. “I didn’t know what to expect, and oh my gosh, the construction impacted me a lot. But that’s water under the bridge.” Now he’s seeing increased foot traffic and impulse buys, like the visitor who recently walked in and bought an expensive framed map off the wall. “By the way,” the customer told him, “I wouldn’t have known about your store if it wasn’t for the streetcar.”

Carroll says he’s heard the same message from at least 10 to 20 people, and he thinks there probably are many more who just haven’t voiced it. “It’s making me expand my hours and focus more on retail than business to business,” he says, adding that he considered moving the store to Overland Park in the 1990s when downtown was in decline. Today he’s thinking up new product lines like T-shirts with lettering and symbols from vintage Kansas City maps.

“You can tell that people are still excited about riding the streetcar,” he says. “It’s actually been a good thing for me.”

Keith Novorr is the third generation owner of Michael’s Clothing, a men’s specialty store at 1830 Main St. He says the shop definitely suffered from inconveniences while the streetcar route was being installed, but business has picked up since May. “We’ve been here 110 years and all of a sudden the walk-in traffic is better.”

Enough better, Novorr says, that now he and his son are adding more sportswear with slimmer cuts for a younger age group to their stock of regular cuts for middle-aged customers. He also reports success with selling a suit, shirt and tie package as an option to renting a tuxedo for special events like weddings.

“Certainly the development around the streetcar has been positive,” Novorr says. “The City promised development would follow when they started the project three years ago, and they weren’t wrong.”

The nonprofit Folk Alliance International produces an annual conference billed as “the world’s largest gathering of the folk music industry and community.” When the alliance designed a flyer for the upcoming 2017 conference (which includes the Kansas City Folk Festival at the Westin Crown Center on Feb. 19), they made sure to promote the streetcar as a free and convenient way to explore a two-mile loop of restaurants and art spaces.

“It’s a big deal for us,” says Erika Noguera, communications manager. “We consider the streetcar an incredible asset to entice our international delegates to come to Kansas City.”

The conference, an industry event for business networking, has continued to grow since its beginning. Noguera expects 2,500 attendees from 20 countries to attend the 29th annual event. She says the streetcar construction may have speeded up the closing of a small store operated by the Folk Alliance at 509 Delaware, “but we were headed toward that decision anyway.” Now the closing has allowed the group to expand the office that was in the back of the shop so all staff can work at the same location—one that’s just a few steps away from a streetcar stop.

Ashley Patton, co-owner of Posh KC, always asks new customers how they first heard about her blow dry bar and style salon at 1211 Main St. Often the answer is, “I saw your store from the streetcar.”

Posh KC opened about the same time as the streetcar, so Patton can’t assess any before-and-after impact. But she considers the Metro Center stop across from her storefront to be a free advertisement. “It definitely helps attract hotel guests who see us along the way. We get a lot of out of town visitors, especially during the week,” she says. “It’s a nice thing.”

Plowboys Barbeque is one downtown business that didn’t mind the streetcar construction. “We miss those workers,” says owner Todd Johnson. “They really liked to eat at our place.”

His restaurant is relocating in October to a new address at the southwest corner of 1111 Main St. The reasons for the move are varied and include outdoor seating space, a range hood for cooking French fries and a private meeting room. But Johnson also looks forward to being closer to a streetcar stop as well as the Sprint Center and the Kauffman Performing Arts Center. “With the streetcar we’re expanding our universe to the Crown Center area,” he says, “and we’ll also be more visible.”