Business

Popular store closes because of streetcar construction, owner says

A Gold Line streetcar driver moves from one end to the other as he prepares to head in the opposite direction on East 4th Street Thursday, June 22, 2017. Catch On Seafood Market, on Hawthorne Lane, is closed now, the result, its owner says, of construction.
A Gold Line streetcar driver moves from one end to the other as he prepares to head in the opposite direction on East 4th Street Thursday, June 22, 2017. Catch On Seafood Market, on Hawthorne Lane, is closed now, the result, its owner says, of construction. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

When Sean Schussler opened Catch On Seafood Company on Hawthorne Lane at Central Avenue last year, he didn’t expect the Gold Line streetcar to hurt the store.

Schussler said he was assured by a city of Charlotte official that the bridge over Independence Boulevard wouldn’t close and impacts from construction would be minimal.

But CATS said that new engineering work showed a new bridge was, in fact, necessary, and the contract City Council approved in November 2016 included funding to replace the bridge. In July, the city sent out a notice that it was closing the bridge to demolish and replace it. The new bridge won’t be ready until at least March 2019.

“Within days, we saw a drastic, drastic decrease in business,” said Schussler.

He closed the Catch On location on Hawthorne this weekend for good, though he hopes to find a new location or perhaps operate as a pick-up service for customer orders. Average daily sales fell 60 percent and some weekends plunged by 80 percent, Schussler said, after the bridge closed and traffic on Hawthorne was cut down drastically.

The closure illustrates the tension between short-term construction pain and what the city hopes will be long-term economic benefits from the streetcar. The Gold Line’s proponents expect it to stimulate new development along its route, though so far growth along the first segment through Elizabeth just east of uptown has been slow to materialize.

Along the Blue Line light rail extension to University City, businesses and local residents have also been frustrated by long-running construction. At 36th Street, the road has been closed for over three years, making it harder to access businesses and houses.

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Catch On Seafood Market. Sean Schussler

Schussler started Catch On nearby in 2014, then expanded and opened the Hawthorne location last year. The company touted its fresh, never-frozen fish, oysters, crabs, clams and other seafood from the Carolinas coasts to retail customers in Charlotte, and Schussler traveled frequently to places like Murrells Inlet where he knows fishermen to buy directly from them. His business was profiled in Charlotte Magazine and won local accolades as a favorite place to buy seafood.

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Sign in the window of Catch On. Sean Schussler

The second phase of the Gold Line is a 2.5-mile, $150 million extension running both directions from the first “starter” line, with costs split evenly between the city and federal government. The line will extend from Johnson C. Smith University along Beatties Ford Road, connecting east through uptown and Elizabeth to Sunnyside Avenue. It’s projected to open in 2020.

The cost to replace the 25-year-old Hawthorne bridge is estimated to total about $5 million to $6 million. The new bridge will have a center median, along with the poles, electric wires, tracks and other streetcar infrastructure.

“I think it’s a good idea for our future,” Schussler, a 17-year resident of Plaza Midwood, said of the streetcar. In the late 90s, he was involved in citizen groups looking at the future of a streetcar and how to make the area more walkable. “I think it will help with parking, moving people around.”

What he doesn’t think the city has done a good job of, however, is reaching out to businesses along the line and offering them help to stay in business during the wait. Schussler said the city told him he could put up signs during business hours to let people know the shop was open, but not much else.

“All you get is, sorry, we can’t do nothing,” he said.

Juliann Sheldon, a spokesperson for CATS, said the bridge’s closure has been planned since about Oct. 2014, during the design work for phase two of the streetcar.

“It was determined in engineering that the bridge would need to be rebuilt to withstand the weight of the new infrastructure and has been communicated that way since,” Sheldon said in an email. She said those plans were in place before Catch On’s Hawthorne location opened, and that CATS officials didn’t tell him otherwise.

The area around the store along Central Avenue has grown rapidly in recent years, with more than 1,000 new apartments and more under construction.

“People would say, ‘Hey, those apartments must be helping you big-time,’” said Schussler. But the apartment dwellers tended to be young professionals who would drop in to buy a half-pound of salmon for a weeknight dinner – the big sales tended to come from older customers who drove there.

Even before the bridge closed, crews shut down access to Hawthorne from Central for utilities installation for a few weeks. That hurt business too, Schussler said, so they started delivering fish to make up for that. But once access from Hawthorne via the bridge over Independence was shut off – for what will be a total of almost two years – Schussler said sales fell off a cliff.

Traffic backups on alternative access routes, like Pecan Avenue, worsened, Schussler said.

“Nobody wants to sit for 40 minutes to buy fish,” he said.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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