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Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2009

The Bridge is Out

Doing Business on Humboldt Avenue

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­Dining and entertainment is at the heart of every great neighborhood, but what happens when its main artery is blocked? The Humboldt Avenue Bridge has been under construction for a year and is a lifeline for many restaurants and bars bordering the Milwaukee River. Plagued by the recession, these restaurants are not fully blaming the bridge construction for slow sales, but agree that it is an obstacle. Project managers now report a completion date of June 2010, six months later than originally expected.

Bayou (2060 N. Humboldt Ave.) is closest to the construction and arguably the most affected. Owners and twin brothers Robert and William Jenkins opened the Cajun-fusion restaurant in September 2006. Although they have laid off a few staff members and altered the menu slightly, Robert insists that little has changed. Bayou is focused on keeping its Web site up to date and utilizing in-house marketing to maintain a steady flow of customers. They also have added an extended happy hour and live music every Sunday on the patio.

Although Robert has talked about promotions with neighboring restaurants, he explains that plans have been pushed back because "everyone is more or less in survival mode right now. We are staying flexible and ready to respond to forces beyond our control and remain hopeful that either the economy or the construction will get better quickly," he says.

The Good Life (1935 N. Water St.) began serving Caribbean-inspired cuisine in 2006. After briefly closing this summer, the restaurant has reopened under new management and will be unveiling new menu offerings in the coming months with more of an American twist.
"This has been a huge learning experience and has forced us to be more creative with our operating style and to tighten things up," owner Cassie Brooks says. "When the construction finishes I have a feeling the bridge won't be the only new and improved project."

Jim Meztz's business plan relied on walk-up traffic when he opened Meglio's Pizzeria (1888 N. Humboldt Ave.) at the busy intersection of Humboldt, Water and Kane. The bridge construction has affected not only Meglio's daytime walk-up business, but also evening carry-outs. "Many people who get carry-out aren't coming from other parts of the city to pick up a pizza for dinner on their way home from work because it's no longer convenient," Meztz explains.

Although they are a little further removed from the construction, Trocadero (1758 N. Water St.) and Brocach Irish Pub (1850 N. Water St.) still feel the effects. "Traffic is noticeably quieter on Water Street, and that has to hurt our business.Anytime you put hurdles in front of your customers, it hurts sales, and I'm certain the bridge is having that impact this year," says Eric Wager, Trocadero co-owner.

Brocach opened in 2007 and its staff says that the month the construction began was their worst ever for sales. They have otherwise seen a steady growth attributed to good word of mouth. Brocach is focused on becoming a late-night destination because they are off the beaten path. They just renovated the rooftop patio and offer activities like movies, trivia and an open mic on various nights of the week.

Other neighborhoods with bridge construction have seen different results in the past. When the State Street Bridge closed last year, restaurants and bars on Old World Third Street were not affected as badly because it is an established neighborhood with a rich history. Teri O'Brien, manager of Buck Bradley's says, "Many of our customers are regulars because we have been around since 1995, so they continued to find ways to get here."

Newer restaurants like those near the Humboldt Avenue ­Bridge have not had the time to build up such a loyal following.

Cecilia Gilbert, permits and communications manager at Milwaukee's Department of Public Works, has been keeping the lines of communication open. As with previous construction projects, the city displays large standing signs with businesses logos to show people those establishments remain open.

The new bridge is expected to be in service for at least the next 75 years. Improvements such as a traffic signal, wider sidewalks, scenic outlooks and a new pedestrian stairway from Commerce Street to Riverboat Road promise to resuscitate this neighborhood.Soon, this heartache will just be water under the bridge.

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