LA Metro helps small businesses overcome construction challenges | Crain's Los Angeles

LA Metro helps small businesses overcome construction challenges

(Left to right) Dr. William Faulkner and Ken Hitts from the Business Solution Center. | Photo courtesy of the Business Solution Center.

The financial assistance and business expertise William Faulkner received through two pilot programs launched in the last couple years by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority means the dentist will not, as he feared, need to relocate his practice out of the South Los Angeles neighborhood he’s operated within for more than three decades.

Like many businesses in the Crenshaw District, Faulkner’s dental practice, Crenshaw Slauson Family Dentistry, has suffered losses due to heavy construction along the main thoroughfare. In 2014, construction began on a new light rail line that will extend 8.5 miles between the Metro’s Exposition Line at Crenshaw and Exposition Boulevards south through the Crenshaw District, portions of unincorporated L.A., the cities of Inglewood and El Segundo and at its terminus connect to the Los Angeles International Airport and the Metro’s Green Line.  

The $2 billion project includes construction of three underground stations along Crenshaw Boulevard. The line is expected to open in the fall of 2019.

Once it’s operational, the new light rail line is expected to boost economic vitality and growth in the area, said Shalonda Baldwin, Metro’s deputy executive officer of diversity and economic opportunity.

“With any development of transit rail, it leads to opportunities for economic uplift and mobility for the community,” she said. But during the roughly five-year construction period, equipment, fencing and other material associated with big construction projects can present economic challenges for businesses—especially small businesses.

That’s why, Baldwin said, the Metro’s Board of Directors in 2014 gave the green light to two small business friendly initiatives: the Business Interruption Fund and the Business Solution Center.

Businesses with 25 or fewer employees located within the immediate construction zone can apply to receive grants totaling up to $50,000 through the BIF. The businesses must have been in operation for at least two years and be able to demonstrate losses as a result of the ongoing construction work.

As of mid-August, more than $10 million had been awarded to 233 small businesses, according to the transit agency. The vast majority of grant recipients operate businesses adjacent to the Crenshaw/LAX transit project, but other businesses operating near Metro transit projects in L.A.’s Little Tokyo and Mid-City and Westside areas have also received grants through the fund.

Faulkner said he recently received notice his application for a BIF grant was approved. The money, he said, will cover business losses.

“Patients did not want to come down Crenshaw or Slauson [Avenue] because of a hectic wait in traffic and disarray taking place all along the Crenshaw corridor. It impacted everything in terms of business flow,” he said.

The Metro’s Board of Directors authorized the distribution of up to $10 million annually for eight years through the BIF program, according to Baldwin. She said the program launched in 2015.

While the grant program is available to small businesses located along corridors impacted by all of Metro’s major transit projects, the Business Solution Center is a Metro-funded resource dedicated solely to the Crenshaw business community.

The center is located within the Los Angeles Urban League offices at 4401 Crenshaw Boulevard and is operated by the consulting firm Del Richardson & Associates Inc.

The BSC offers a wide array of services, from workshops and accounting assistance to help creating social media profiles, email addresses and websites for proprietors, said Del Richardson of Del Richardson and Associates. While she said the BIF is a vital resource for businesses in the Crenshaw District, the solution center is able to offer counsel and connect business owners to experts to help better position them for the future, she said.

“I can give you all the money in world,” Richardson said. “If you’re not educated and don’t know what to do with that money, it’s not going to help.”

Ken Hitts, who works for the BSC, said he’s contacted over 450 different entities, including for-profit businesses as well as non-profits, schools and religious institutions, located within the Crenshaw District.

“I think the most impressive part of what we’ve done is that 85 percent of the businesses [in the area] are still operating even though they’ve experienced disruptions caused by the construction,” he said.

Faulkner said the new rail line has impacted his livelihood beyond the presence of heavy construction outside his office doors. Because the rail line is anticipated to increase property values in the area, Faulkner said his landlord at the shopping plaza where his dental practice has been located since he first opened in 1986 told him that he could not renew his lease because the unit would be torn down to accommodate a national auto parts and accessories retailer.

He said BSC connected him with a lease negotiator and as a result he was able to sign a lease for a unit within the same shopping center yards away from his practice’s former location. He said staff at the BSC also connected him to an IT specialist and partially covered the cost for those services. Faulkner opened for business in his new location at 3250 W. Slauson Blvd. late last month after moving out of his former space on Crenshaw Boulevard in June. The assistance he received from the solution center saved time and relieved a great deal of stress, he said.

Ken Williams, director of the Universal School of Beauty, a cosmetology school located at 3419 W. 43rd Place between Crenshaw and Leimert Boulevards, said the new light rail line is “a longtime overdue.” But, he said, construction on the new line has caused a lot of disruption and a severe lack of parking.

Williams received assistance through the BIF and BSC. The college is a family owned and operated school founded by Williams’s grandmother in 1929. In addition to helping people pay their bills while their businesses suffered a downturn due to the construction work, Williams said the BIF and BSC also brought the local merchant community together and demonstrated that Metro was interested and willing to invest in the community.

Richardson said she believes the BSC has helped small business owners persist and in certain circumstances thrive under challenging conditions.

“It’s like butterflies the joy I get in seeing these small businesses grow,” she said. “I was raised in this neighborhood and the mere fact that I can help small businesses, some I remember as teen? Talk about gratification.” She said she hopes the pilot program will continue through the full term of the construction period.​

Faulkner added that he is just thankful that he can continue to operate in an underserved community with few dentists.

“It’s because of [the BSC and BIF] largely that the practice is still in the community,” Faulkner said. 

September 7, 2017 - 4:12pm