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Tucked in a small plaza just off Farrington Highway in Waipahu, Maria Nichols’ barbershop used to draw about 140 customers a day. Her hairdressers, working at her shop and others around the city, often brought home more than $100,000 a year, she said.
But construction on the Honolulu rail project through Waipahu in 2014 cut the number of customers at Harvey’s Barbershop down to 50 per day. When her barbers started making less money, many of them bailed.
“When the rail made the business go low, that hurt. It really hurts,” Nichols said.
With rail construction lightening up, Nichols says business has improved slightly, but it is still far off from its peak. Still, she is hopeful things will turn around once the trains are expected to start running in 2020 to the West Loch Station, where it’s projected 5,300 passengers will board and depart each day.
But 2020 is a long way off for business owners, who’ve seen construction and the accompanying traffic congestion drive away many customers.
To help struggling businesses, the Honolulu City Council put $2 million into this year’s city budget for property tax relief. The Department of Budget and Fiscal Services still needs to determine how businesses can apply for the funds.
Two years ago, the council passed a bill to create a fund for businesses adversely affected by rail but didn’t appropriate any money for it. Both the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit and the Federal Transit Administration said that any funds tied to the rail project couldn’t be used to help businesses.
None of the businesses Civil Beat spoke to have received any kind of assistance from the state or city.
The Building Industry Association of Hawaii will hold workshops throughout July for business owners affected by rail construction. The workshops will focus on marketing and how to survive construction. Information can be found at BIA’s website.
Nichols could use the help: She has been spending an additional $6,000 per month out of pocket to keep the shop running.
During a June press conference on the guideway just above Nichols’ shop, Mayor Kirk Caldwell painted an optimistic vision of what rail might mean for this section of Waipahu.
Imagine a surfer returning home after a day at Waikiki Walls. The surfer would get off at Zippy’s to grab some chili before heading home on an Ewa-bound train. Near the West Loch Station, the mayor said the surfer would see a community filled with vibrant residential areas and bustling sidewalks with residents peering into storefront windows.
That would represent a dramatic transformation for the area near West Loch Station, which includes about 50 acres of dense industrial land on the makai side of the rail tracks. Packed streets with warehouses and car shops border one of Waipahu’s poorest communities, with more than a quarter of the population earning incomes below the poverty level.
Before Caldwell’s surfer reaches West Loch, he would need to pass the Waipahu Transit Center, which is under construction now.
Oknam Burchette hopes that workers at the nearby site can save her ailing business.
Burchette tossed rail planners out of her bar after tearing up the documents they had brought to show her. The planners wanted to present to all the Waipahu businesses along Farrington Highway their designs for the Honolulu rail project, but Burchette wasn’t having any of it.
“I need help, not this piece of paper,” she told them.
Business at Burchette’s bar, Club Ruby, has been slow for the past 10 years. Rail construction, which began in 2014, didn’t help.
She thought it would, figuring workers would need a place to eat breakfast in the morning and pau hana at night. Instead, construction closed down streets, making it impossible for some to get to Club Ruby.
On a recent Monday, while workers just outside were working on the Waipahu Transit Center, the only customers in the small, dark bar were a couple that had been there for more than eight hours. A yapping Cocker Spaniel rested on the counter.
Hawaiian Dredging and HART want to turn those workers into customers for Club Ruby, encouraging them to pay the bar a visit.
In fact, while Burchette spoke with Civil Beat, she was supposed to have a meeting with Hawaiian Dredging and HART. Though a representative for the dredging company was there, and even ordered a steak, HART’s liaison could not attend, citing a conflicting meeting.
Across the street from Club Ruby, Wayne Salidad dumps fresh akule and opelu into iced bins at Da Fish Market. Salidad offered a special on those two types of fish as part of HART’s Shop and Dine On The Line, a marketing service that helps business owners distribute coupons to potential customers.
“It didn’t work,” Salidad said.
In the year that he offered a 10 percent discount on his fish, just four people took advantage of the offer.
Salidad’s fish market moved to its current location across the street from Tanioaka’s in 2014 after spending six years at the Waipahu Festival Marketplace in the old Arakawa’s building.
Besides customers from its old location, Da Fish Market only started seeing new shoppers once rail construction was well underway. Salidad said the store wasn’t well known and hadn’t been in its location long enough to see a drop in customers.
“Eventually it will work,” Salidad said of rail. “But I think we won’t live long enough to see it work.”
Still, some businesses can already see the benefits as rail construction begins slowing down. Salidad said the parking lot that Da Fish Market shares with Elena’s and Wong Kung Chop Suey now fills up during lunch hours.
Mellissa Cedillo, owner of Elena’s, said her restaurant only experienced a 5 percent to 8 percent dip in sales, which never put her at risk of shutting down. Elena’s loyal customers found a way around all the construction through back roads to get to the 43-year-old Filipino restaurant.
And while Cedillo doesn’t need more traffic like Nichols needs heads of hair to cut and Burchette needs people to serve, she would welcome more business that the rail might bring.
“I can see it bringing business,” she said. “I just can’t see when.”