Kempner: Small business, X-rated or not, flamed by I-85 collapse

A street walker named “Star” and, oddly, the proprietress of a ladies apparel store were the only people I found along one eclectic Atlanta byway who said the traffic jams from the I-85 collapse might actually be good for business.

Who knew?

But make no mistake: some of our entrepreneurial neighbors need our help.

Collapsageddon is now embedded in the daily business life of a street that even some local owners described to me as Atlanta’s “red light district.” (The description feels outdated and overstated to me, but I’m told it’s still a seedy place at night.)

A string of independent (and not-at-all-seedy) shop and restaurant owners expected havoc after interstate drivers were diverted onto Cheshire Bridge Road.

But small business owners tend to be think-happy-thoughts people. So, many of those along Cheshire Bridge hoped the hordes of passersby from places like Lilburn, Peachtree City, Dunwoody, Charlotte or D.C. would stop in, ready to spend.

“You’d think it would be free advertising,” said Jodi Stallings, the general manager of the Colonnade. “But it’s not.”

Sales, she said, are down at least 50 percent as the landmark Southern restaurant celebrates its 90th anniversary in the middle of a traffic swamp.

Suburbanites used to stop in. So did spring breakers from places Michigan. But not since the hole in the interstate clogged local streets. Passing motorists fear that if they pull over for a meal, impatient fellow drivers might not ever let them out again, Stallings said.

Trying to acclimate

For weeks now drivers have had a chance to acclimate to the new routes and make peace with longer commutes.

“We thought: ‘People will find their new normal and things will get better,’” said Heather Coleman, who with her husband owns Two Minit Car Wash (the one with the stuffed gorilla out front).

It hasn’t happened that way. While traffic isn’t quite as bad as it was the first week, drivers are impatient and mostly uninterested in hanging around any longer than they have to, Coleman told me.

The car wash is actually on Piedmont Avenue, but every day she and her crew witness the slow chug of vehicles and honking drivers trying to get to Cheshire Bridge.

“We watch all the dirty cars go by,” she said.

This is particularly bad because we’re in the midst of a six-week window when pine trees unleash their yellow pollen and create the equivalent of a Christmas shopping rush for car washes.

Coleman has cut back hours of long-time employees. But she told me she’s also given loans to at least three of them in recent days to help them get by.

I heard the same kind of struggles in business after business. 

There’s supposed to be light at the end of the tunnel, of course. The Georgia Department of Transportation and private contractors apparently are moving staggeringly quickly to repair the interstate and have it opened by June 15, if not sooner.

Real life often isn’t that crisp.

Scott Duke, the owner of Taverna Plaka, a Mediterranean restaurant, shares a worry with many of his business neighbors: Former customers are creating new habits by patronizing businesses not in the traffic maw.

Lingering effects feared

“Once you get used to going somewhere else, it takes longer to come back,” said Duke, who told me his his sales have been cut in half. “We are probably going to feel the effects until fall.”

Many businesses along Cheshire Bridge are small independents. While theoretically they can experiment with new tactics quicker than big chains, most don’t have other outlets in places unaffected by the I-85 meltdown. That makes them vulnerable.

“If this continues, there’s a good amount of businesses that will close,” said Dean Chronopoulos, the “owner/host/chef” of Roxx Tavern.

His food and spirits hangout has been on Cheshire Bridge for 17 years. He appreciates regulars who have braved the traffic to stop by, and he told me his business will survive. But he said his 30-50 percent drop in sales has been “devastating.”

Cheshire Bridge has lots of long-time businesses, from Rhodes Bakery to Nakato, a Japanese restaurant. You could eat in a different restaurant every day for a month.

“It’s a cool street. It’s not Buckhead. It’s not Midtown. It’s still neighborhoody,” Chronopoulos said. “It’s still a very independent street.”

He calls it “eclectic.” Other business owners and customers I spoke with used the phrase “red light district.”

“You are going to see anything and everything at one time or another,” said Kimm Harris, who has been coming to the area for decades and until recently owned a nearby warehouse.

New apartments and townhouses are popping up. So the area is ripe for change.

Shops for all kinds

But vestiges remain of what one business owner described as “strip clubs, jack shops and head shops.”

“Star,” who sported a bright red Afro, tight black clothes and a necklace with the word “LOVE,” confirmed being an escort. The extra traffic means extra business, Star said, adding that paying customers could just want to talk.

Farther down Cheshire Bridge, in the apparel boutique Ready Trading, owner Lee Read Pilgrim told me her clientele is primarily 35- to 85-year-old women, many of them professionals.

Her sales have been up in recent weeks, she told me, perhaps because of the change in seasons but maybe also from people who happen to be in the new traffic and spy her shop.

She knows she is an outlier. Pilgrim told me about efforts to re-establish a “Taste of Cheshire Bridge” event to highlight local businesses. The rough idea had been to do something in early summer.

“This, of course, has thrown a monkey wrench in it,” she told me.

She signaled to the traffic outside. “People are like they’ve been punched in the chest right now.”

Maybe we can help.

If there’s one thing we know how to do in Atlanta, it’s putter through traffic. Putter by Cheshire Bridge and perhaps other nearby avenues and spread a little money around. The entrepreneurs there (I’ll focus on the non-seedy ones) could use a break.

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