Proprietor David Johnson knows the line of orange cones and flashing barricades that mark the entrance of Watson’s Flower Shop are just the start of what’s to come for his business as light rail makes its way down Apache Boulevard.
The Tempe-to-Mesa line of the $1.3 billion 20-mile Valley Metro Light Rail project will run down the middle of the street, past the store Johnson’s family started decades ago in Mesa.
"Our flower store has been here at this location for 73 years, since 1933," Johnson said. But even with all that history behind him, "two years of construction is daunting."
Construction on the Tempe-Mesa line started in September, with the bulk of work expected to be finished by the end of 2007, said Daina Mann, Valley Metro Rail spokeswoman.
Much of the work has focused near downtown Tempe, including a bridge over Tempe Town Lake. Now, however, crews also are working on Apache, moving underground pipes to either side of the street, out of the path of the rail line.
Mann said construction crews move "out-to-in" and work on utility lines, sidewalks and curbs, before going back to the center of the road to lay the rail lines, Mann said.
"The further along it gets, the less disruptive it gets. This is when we will have the most disruption," Mann said.
For Johnson and other business owners along Apache, work hasn’t been too bad.
"We’re in the early stages of construction. We realize there will be some inconveniences, but we’re happy light rail is coming down the boulevard," said Bob Stafford, owner of the Apache Palms RV Park in Tempe.
"We’re just at the very front end of it right now," said Richard Gart, owner of the Apache Rivers Inn. "A year from now, who knows? But right now, so far, so good."
Like Gart, Johnson also was opposed to the light-rail project. Instead of continuing to fight a lost battle, Johnson said he evaluated "everything" about his business over the past year to prepare for construction.
Johnson reworked the company’s delivery service, rid himself of two older vans and replaced them with Toyota Scions. The fuel savings allowed him to reduce his delivery fees, and he is working to expand his phone-in business.
This November, he opened a second Watson’s location at the northeast corner of Val Vista Drive and Guadalupe Road in Gilbert.
He’s held training sessions to teach his staff about light rail so that they can speak to customers in an educated way about the project.
Johnson remains positive, but knows what’s ahead. He remembers 1987 when three bridges — on Broadway Road, University Drive and Apache Boulevard — were built simultaneously over Loop 101, which didn’t yet exist.
"It all happened at once and it took 2 1 /2 years. The perception was that there was no way to drive east or west on these three streets," he said.
"Our losses were so significant that I had to mortgage my farm. The last payment on that will be next month. I know what construction can do."
As a result of concerns from business owners across the region, Valley Forward, a nonprofit public interest group, sponsored two public forums this week.
Business owners from Salt Lake City, Houston and Minneapolis spoke candidly about their experiences as light rail made its way through their cities and in front of their businesses.
"According to all those panelists, it’s a magnet for commerce and for merchants . . . That’s very reassuring," Johnson said. "All were unanimous that the light rail will drive away the blight. I was very happy about that."
The entire rail system is expected to be running by the end of 2008.
A loan program aimed at helping businesses through light-rail construction has been established in Tempe. The Asset Assistance Program gives qualified businesses access to a $20,000 line of credit for operational expenses during the disruptive construction period of the light-rail system.
"This program will give businesses the funds they need to pay employees, rent and utilities through a challenging period in the life of their business," said Mary Ann Miller, president of the Tempe Chamber of Commerce.
The program was developed by the chamber, Tempe Schools Credit Union, the city and the Service Corps of Retired Executives.