Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Feb. 19 in the New Mexico News Port, under the headline, "Nob Hill merchants still awaiting ART's benefits," written by Nichole Harwood. This is part of our project to help connect the Daily Lobo audience to more members of our community.

With the arrival of ART — Albuquerque Rapid Transit’s dedicated bus line — many longtime businesses find themselves still waiting for the project to deliver on its promises while enduring more than a year of disruption.

The Nob Hill Business Community has emerged as one of Albuquerque’s most popular districts for restaurants, entertainment and boutique shopping. Home to many locally owned businesses, Nob Hill is located just east of the University of New Mexico, spanning a mile-long stretch of Central Avenue.

Owner of the local comic shop Astro Zombies Mike D’Elia said his business has been a part of the Nob Hill community for almost 19 years.

When the ART construction began in October of 2016 it did not impact Astro Zombies as much as the neighboring businesses, although there was a slight decline in customers, D’Elia said.

The lack of impact, however, was only temporary.

“Once July (2017) came around it was like we were cut off at the knees,” he said. “Business changed overnight and still many months later is not back to what it was.”

With an in-service date of Sept. 2017 initially predicting the project’s end, it has since then dealt with multiple delays resulting in construction often stopping, then later resuming.

Once construction seemed near to an end, business began to get back on track until repeated construction including the closing of Central. It has made business all but absent, D’Elia said.

When ART was first introduced D’Elia was one business owner who along with his neighbors went to one of the early meetings, he said. 

“We were basically laughed at, ignored and told this is going to happen regardless of if we like it or not,” D’Elia said. “We all knew this was going to be a giant mess benefiting no one except politicians and those 'awarded' contracts, and we were right.”

D’Elia speaks regularly to fellow business owners regarding the impact of ART and said many have been friends and confidants for ages.

“To see some of my neighbors in tears not knowing how they will keep their businesses open and support their families, or worse, watching hard-working New Mexicans have to close their doors, because the mayor decided this project was best for us is a complete travesty,” he said.

The project was introduced by Albuquerque’s then-mayor Richard Berry, who left office in December 2017.

With Mayor Tim Keller’s administration now overseeing the project, D’Elia is ready for the project to finally pay off.

“I will say I have hope that the project will be utilized in a way beneficial to both Nob Hill and those who use public transportation,” D’Elia said. “At this point, it would be nice to just have it up and running but even that seems like a pipe dream right now.”

As a local business owner D’Elia said Nob Hill is one of the last strongholds of independently owned businesses in Albuquerque.

“They are owned by friends, neighbors, parents of your kid’s friends and a variety of people from all walks of life,” he said. “If we allow our city to become a vast wasteland of Walmart and Starbucks what happens to the Albuquerque everyone claims to love?”

Despite the difficulties his business has dealt with, D’Elia thanked those who went out of their way to continue to support Nob Hill during the last year.

“While we all struggled I want to say a heartfelt thank you,” D’Elia said. “It means the world to have people look out for all of us like that.”

ART Delayed

With repeated delays construction is still ongoing.

Despite these delays, Joanie Griffin, spokeswoman for ART, has said currently construction is on track to be fully complete this spring.

“The City is working closely with the bus manufacturer to expedite delivery of the busses,” she said.

Despite business closures, Griffin said only a handful of businesses have closed because of ART and that nearly every business that has closed during the construction period has specifically stated that ART was not the reason for the closure.

There were a variety of programs implemented to assist businesses and consumers during construction, Griffin said.

These included:

  • Free parking for people east of Broadway on Central Avenue and one block both north and south of Central Avenue
  • A loan program for businesses on Central Avenue
  • Free billboards promoting the Central Avenue businesses
  • Free ART beat events every Thursday for 10 months during construction
  • Free websites for Central Avenue businesses
  • Free business and marketing consulting services for the businesses

“We are anticipating construction will be complete in the spring,” Griffin said. “We don’t have a start date yet, as we are still awaiting the final procurement of the busses, testing of the busses and bus driver training.”

Susan Ricker, owner of Off Broadway, said she was initially skeptical of the project so she attended the meetings available to business owners.

Despite attendance, her skepticism remained unresolved as the meetings were confusing and representatives of ART were not very forthcoming with the information, she said.

“They were going to do what they were going to do no matter what we said,” she said. “They pretended as if they wanted our input. They really didn’t. I think they were compelled maybe lawfully through the project to maybe have these meetings.”

Ricker said she and her fellow business owners were told there would be no construction during the third quarter.

Despite this construction started in October which is Off Broadway’s Christmas season, Ricker said.

Media coverage of the construction also caused problems for business owners.

“Unfortunately everything in the media, in the Journal portrayed this project as this dramatic huge problem for traffic and that’s what everyone in Albuquerque thought. ‘Oh, my God I can’t go to Nob Hill. It’s under construction, it’s horrible,’ and so my business was impacted immediately, and I saw a huge drop in my Halloween sales,” Ricker said.

Despite the issues, Ricker holds onto positive changes presented by the project.

“In the original plan it was going to be a gas bus, and they did change it to electric,” she said. “I would like to believe it was through community pressure because first of all it’s supposed to be a progressive project. And who’s not for progressive transportation? You can’t not be for that. I’m for that and everybody I know is for that.”

Along the way Ricker said her business and others around her have been supported by city councilor Pat Davis who advocated for larger sidewalks and increased parking for them, she said.

“It’s been a real struggle but I am a survivor and I have been a successful business owner, so there’s no way I’m going to go out of business,” Ricker said. “I know how to keep it together and make it work for me and I’m a destination. As much as I would like more walk-in traffic, I’m a destination so people will come here. I’m a very unique store.”

Newer business owner Callen Gurule has been a Nob Hill business owner for two years. He runs the tattoo and piercing shop SACHS Body Modification and said his initial reaction to ART was that it would be good for the Nob Hill Neighborhood.

Gurule, who was born and raised in Albuquerque, said, “I’m still hopeful that it will be good for us in the future because our stop is right there. It’s just going to take a while to get there and you see businesses closing down while that’s happening.”

To combat the lack of business during construction, Gurule said his business has mostly been offering discounts on piercing and tattoos. 

Until the construction is over and business picks up, SACHS will have to hold down expenses, Gurule said. 

“We’ve been here a lot of years,” he said. “We’re hoping to stay here a lot more and hopefully this ART project works out for everybody and is an upgrade for transportation.”

Apart from her role as culture editor at the Daily Lobo, Nichole Harwood is also an editor at the News Port. She can be contacted on Twitter @Nolidoli1.