‘We’re hurting’: Sugar House businesses call on city to offer more support during construction

A business that received a $3,000 grant from the city says it isn’t enough.

Some local business owners in Sugar House say they’re struggling amid road construction on Highland Drive and think the city needs to do more to mitigate their losses.

Greg Gage, owner of Black Cat Comics at 2261 S. Highland Drive, said that the street “has been just a mess” by the shopping center where Black Cat is located, near the Cinemark movie theater, Target, Michaels and other shops and restaurants.

The business owner said he received a $3,000 Small Business Construction Mitigation Grant from the city, which offered the grants to businesses that are either located on a street that’s under construction or within half a block of a construction site. The grant was “definitely appreciated and absolutely was a help,” Gage said, but it wasn’t enough.

“Unfortunately, the construction had cost me more than the grant was,” Gage said, adding that his totals were down $5,000 or $6,000 the same month he received the $3,000. The situation is dire not just for Black Cat Comics but for other Salt Lake City businesses close to construction, he said. “We’re hurting.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Road construction on Highland Drive in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

In the meantime, Gage is selling more online and doing “everything I can” to try and make ends meet.

“Thankfully, we’re a destination store,” he said. “If we didn’t have people specifically coming here because of the store and because of the product and everything, I don’t think we would have made the last few years.”

On Thursday, the Simpson Avenue entrance to the shopping center was open, although it didn’t have a sign indicating business access. Other roadways did have signs for business access, sponsored by the Sugar House Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber co-chair Erika Wiggins said they are already supporting businesses along 1100 East and Highland Drive. The chamber has been working to create more events and hold concerts on Monument Plaza to encourage the public to enjoy the area instead of avoiding it.

The chamber has also developed a website where residents can snap a photo at their favorite Sugar House business, park or restaurant and upload it onto the site for a chance to win prizes from local businesses. The site also has a mapping program that navigates visitors to location-specific parking — so if someone wants to have lunch at a specific Sugar House restaurant, they can know where to park amid construction.

Officials are also hopeful that this summer, the city will revive the construction mitigation grant program that Gage got money from to provide more funds to small, independent merchants in the area. The program is out of funding for this fiscal year, but could come back in July.

But Pierre Vandamme, owner of Bruges Waffles & Frites at 2314 S. Highland Drive, said a $3,000 grant would be a “slap in the face.”

“They said, ‘Oh, we support small businesses,’ but I haven’t seen any support really, because I’m not interested in $3,000,” he said. “I want something more substantial, because we lose way more than $3,000 a month on this whole thing.”

While a manager at Pib’s Exchange said the adjacent clothing store is “hanging in there,” Vandamme said he is losing business because his establishment is stuck between two construction projects: the work on Highland Drive, and the apartments being built just west of Bruges and Pib’s on Ashton Avenue.

“It’s just not an environment that’s very inviting,” he said. “There’s dust everywhere. It’s right next to the construction. It’s really bad.”

Tribune staff writer Jordan Miller contributed to this report.