Two years into construction, signs of the Hilltop Tacoma Link Extension are cropping up throughout Hilltop, Stadium, and Tacoma’s downtown. The project, which routes the Tacoma Link through the Stadium and Hilltop business districts, is slated for completion in 2022. And while the extension promises to bring an influx of foot traffic and customers to both districts, businesses have struggled to weather the impacts of the ongoing construction outside their doors.

The $217 million expansion that began in 2018 will bring a new downtown station to Old City Hall, replacing the current Theater District station. From there, the route includes six additional stops through the Stadium Business District, up Division Avenue, and down Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

However, that construction has brought major road closures, traffic revisions, and blocked-off parking to parts of Stadium and Hilltop. Scott Thompson, a public information specialist at Sound Transit, recognizes the project poses significant challenges for small businesses.

“We have a lot of work to do there — from moving underground utilities, to putting track in the road, to building stations, to putting up power poles, and everything else along that alignment. So it’s very impactful to the businesses and the residents there. We’re doing all we can to make sure that people know the businesses there are open, that people can get access to them, (and) that residents can get in and out of the area.”

Carol Wolfe, the division manager for the City of Tacoma’s Community and Economic Development Department, said that both the city and Sound Transit have worked closely to provide assistance to impacted businesses.

“We try to share lessons learned (from previous large construction projects),” Wolfe said about tactics such as encouraging businesses to build their email lists and use social media to notify customers of construction. The city also facilitated introductions to Sound Transit officials and city employees who would provide assistance throughout construction.

The City of Tacoma and Sound Transit also partner to keep business owners up to date about construction workers’ progress. Email alerts and on-the-ground support help businesses stay informed about road closures, parking revisions, and daily construction plans. In addition, both entities have lent their digital marketing channels to boost the profile of businesses along the construction route. Sound Transit’s Loyal to the Local program helps promote businesses impacted by construction projects around the region, and has provided additional media exposure for businesses in Stadium and Hilltop.

The city also offers one-on-one support to businesses to address concerns. In October, the economic development department took on a revolving-loan fund for small businesses, including a microloan program for $25,000 or less. Wolfe said the microloan program has prioritized businesses along the Link Extension route, ensuring they can access capital to help weather challenges caused by construction.

Denny Faker is the owner of the Bayview Garden apartments and previously managed the Stadium Business District for 18 years. The 70-year-old was an early advocate for the rail extension, soliciting support for the project from business owners in Stadium and along Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Still, Faker said he lost several tenants this summer due to extended road closures along North First Street. He still is confident the Link Extension will be a huge boon to the district in the years to come. But for now, he said, “(Business owners) are just holding their breath.”

In April, Faker sold the North Slope Coffee House to Colleen Allen. The small coffee shop adjacent to Stadium Thriftway has benefited from Sound Transit’s Loyal to the Local program, and Allen said she’s grateful that Sound Transit and the local business district have helped boost the profile of her tiny shop via social media. Extended street closures near her shop have cost her some customers, she said, yet her focus is on the future. In fact, she is looking to redesign her space to accommodate the additional foot traffic she expects to see once the extension is complete.

In Hilltop, many businesses were hit hard during summer 2019, when construction blocked sections of MLK and South 11th Street. Sarah Joslyn, who opened Red Elm Café with her sisters Adina and Jennifer in 2017, said that June, July, and August were particularly difficult. Luckily, she said, the heaviest impacts cleared up after the summer season.

Irregular customer flows have made it difficult to determine the best staffing configuration, Joslyn said, but she’s also seen neighbors and community groups go out of their way to support Red Elm Café. 

Joslyn sees accessible transit and decreased automobile congestion as a neighborhood benefit. “It’ll be nice to see a lot of new businesses open in buildings that are vacant because they’re viable. Spaces that are kind of desolate can be revitalized,” she said. She also wondered how the Tacoma Link Extension’s completion will reshape Hilltop. “We’re aware that the gentrification of our neighborhood is happening quickly. And we’re a part of that,” she said. If rents spike once the project is complete, Joslyn expressed concern that existing customers and businesses could be priced out of the area.

Jonathan Clark operates Bob’s Bar-B-Q Pit, a Hilltop fixture for the past 31 years. A lifetime resident of the neighborhood, Clark hopes the Link Extension will bring more traffic and exposure to the area. But he said his sales have dropped 15 percent since construction began.

To generate additional revenue, Clark has experimented with delivery services. But since delivery apps take a sizeable cut of his profits — between 15 and 35 percent, depending on the service — Clark said he limits their usage to times when business is slow.

Overall, Clark believes the Tacoma Link Extension will elevate Hilltop. “Once it’s all said and done, it’s going to revitalize Hilltop, it’s going to be more lucrative for businesses, and there will be more residents in this community because of it.”

Another longtime Hilltop business, Johnson Candy Co., has tried several strategies to boost sales during the construction period. The third-generation legacy business began as a soda fountain in 1925 and has occupied its current building since 1949. Because the company relies heavily on its retail business and typically serves an older clientele, owner Bill Johnson said construction has posed significant challenges, particularly during last summer’s street closures. 

And Johnson also has received help from the community. UW Tacoma’s Progressive Student Union, for example, recently hosted a Facebook campaign in support of the company, and Johnson also participated in a Valentine’s Day pop-up event at Locust Cider & Brewing. He currently is looking into wholesale and expanding into online sales.

Overall, like many business owners, Johnson said he’s intrigued by the idea that one day the Tacoma Link will drop customers off directly in front of his retail space. Until then, he said, it’s a matter of figuring out how to survive the turmoil.