Construction on 21st Avenue hurts business

Joseph Fralic thought he knew what he was getting into.

When The Tuscaloosa News reported that The Booth had gotten its overlay license for a new location downtown in January 2009, it also reported that Mayor Walt Maddox warned Fralic, co-owner of The Booth, about impending construction in the area.

However, Fralic said even knowing construction might interfere with business didn’t truly prepare him for the rough road ahead.

“The reality is, we’ve still never had to go through this before, and it ended up being a lot worse than we thought,” Fralic said. “We’ve had some really hard times.”

Businesses owners on 21st Avenue downtown said they have struggled to bring in customers amid construction that impedes their entry and parking.

Bad weather has pushed the expected date of completion for the project back to June or July, when it was originally supposed to finish this month, according to an April 1 report in The Tuscaloosa News. Fralic said that news exacerbated an already dire situation for The Booth.

“It hurts when the construction companies put out a date that they’re going to finish their construction and then they don’t meet their deadlines,” Fralic said.

Fralic said it had helped to be able to inform customers how long they would have to bear with the construction, and he said the staff worked hard to get the word out to customers. He said while The Booth has lost many customers, a loyal base has kept them in business.

“We’re very proud to say they are our loyal customers,” Fralic said. “They could have gone anywhere more convenient, but they came here.”

Fralic said parking was the biggest problem, but he said the construction also hurts the area’s aesthetic appeal.

“All I ever needed was access from University Boulevard to the parking lot,” Fralic said. “It doesn’t look friendly. It makes it confusing and complicated, not just for pedestrians, but also for students.”

Fralic said the construction had impeded access to The Booth for six to eight months out of about a year since their opening. However, he said he didn’t blame the construction crews.

“We haven’t formally complained to the city,” Fralic said. “We feel we didn’t have a right to. We knew what we were getting into. But it doesn’t help. You’re still going to get hurt.”

Ryan Helsley, manager of Moe’s Original Barbeque on 21st Avenue, said he, too, knew what he was getting into when he opened the restaurant there on Feb. 5. The restaurant is directly adjacent to The Booth, but it faces University Boulevard, where parking spots line the front of the business complex that houses Moe’s.

“We kind of delayed the opening to wait for them to open our side of University, because it was really bad at Christmas time,” Helsley said. “We were planning on doing it in January, but construction was so bad that customers wouldn’t be able to park. Now there’s a little bit of the street open that’s open as a parking area for us.”

Apart from that strategic move, Helsley said construction had not impacted Moe’s too badly.

“I think right now we’ve dealt with the worst of it,” Helsley said. “As it moves farther away from University, it will start to affect other people, because their streets will start to become closed.”

Helsley also said since Moe’s has had to deal with the construction since it opened, he won’t know how badly the construction has impacted business until the construction is over.

“When it finishes, it’s going to be awesome,” Helsley said. “Where we’re at is not really a dead part of town, but we’re kind of in the middle. There’s the Strip on campus that gets a lot of action, and there’s a lot of bars downtown. I guess it’s just kind of a stopping-through point.”

Fralic, too, said he picked the location with the future in mind, knowing that with Hooligan’s and Innisfree nearby, the intersection of 21st Avenue and University Boulevard would eventually become a hot spot in Tuscaloosa.

Bill Lloyd, owner of Wilhagan’s, said other downtown hot spots further from 21st Avenue had not suffered.

“There’s plenty of parking on this end of 4th Street,” Lloyd said. “We really haven’t seen too many problems.

“I’m sure more of the retail establishments have been feeling it,” Lloyd said. “But as far as the hospitality industry, I don’t think it’s been affected very much at all downtown. I really don’t think it’s had a huge effect over in the Temerson Square area.”