The owner of a Greek restaurant in Dubuque blames extensive construction work by the city for the downfall of his business.
Yanni Karavergos, the owner of The Corner Grill, recently announced that he has put his building at 1689 Elm St. on the market. The eventual sale of the property could force him to move his restaurant or shutter the restaurant altogether.
Karavergos said the eatery’s precarious circumstances date back to the summer of 2017, when the City of Dubuque launched a series of construction projects that disrupted restaurant operations for months to come.
“I was told the construction would affect one street and take six months,” Karavergos said. “It affected all four sides of the building, and it took three times as long. No business can survive that.”
Interruptions to Corner Grill were tied to a sizable, multi-phase storm sewer improvement project. City spokesman Randy Gehl said the initiative is a component of the broader Bee Branch Watershed flood-mitigation project.
The first phase ran from August to December 2017. During this time, portions of Elm and East 17th streets were closed.
A second phase of storm sewer improvements began the following summer. It also involved total street and sidewalk reconstruction.
Gehl explained that the second phase was separated into three segments and all work was finished by late December 2018.
Whenever Dubuque businesses are impacted by construction projects, they are issued a “Road Construction Tool Kit” booklet, a nine-page document that includes information about parking options and key city contacts.
Additional steps were taken to assist The Corner Grill, according to Gehl. This included creating and installing business-specific signs directing patrons to the restaurant. Gehl also noted that the city’s construction contractor was required to provide access to it at all times during construction.
Karavergos, however, said the impacts of the construction were still profound.
He described having an “8-foot hole” in front of his business and said the roadwork surrounding his restaurant compelled customers to go elsewhere.
“Whenever your customers start seeing construction and flashing lights, especially your older clientele, they stay away,” he said.
With his business continuing to struggle, Karavergos wishes the city would have done more to help him through the difficult times. Among his suggestions is a zero-interest loan program that would help businesses stay afloat when construction hampers their cash flow.
Corner Grill still is offering lunch and dinner five days per week, and Karavergos aims to continue his catering business for the foreseeable future. However, the eventual sale of the building likely means moving the restaurant or closing it altogether.
It’s a tough blow for an entrepreneur with deep emotional ties to the neighborhood in which the business resides.
“I came down to this area because I am an immigrant,” he said. “I believe in the small neighborhood and trying to revive things.”
Karavergos and his brother Alex previously ran Athenian Grill before a dispute with their landlord prompted the end of its run on University Avenue.
OTHERS FACE STRUGGLES
Karavergos isn’t the only local entrepreneur frustrated by city construction projects.
Kristina Beytien co-owns Upcycle Dubuque, which opened at 1838 Central Ave. in late 2018.
In many respects, she said, the City of Dubuque has helped many small businesses rehab buildings and get their operations up and running.
“The city has been a champion (of small business) in many ways,” she said. “When it comes to construction projects and communication, they have tragically failed.”
Beytien said two separate projects — one addressing water infrastructure and another involving streetscaping — have interrupted traffic flow since her business opened. She said Upcycle Dubuque received little or no warning prior to both projects.
She said the lack of warning hampered the owners’ ability to make sound financial decisions. For instance, Upcycle Dubuque invested heavily in advertising for the first quarter of 2019, only to learn later that traffic on Central Avenue would be disrupted due to construction during that timeframe.
Beytien applauds the city’s broader efforts to invest in the rebirth of Central Avenue. However, she believes a lack of communication might be hampering those very efforts.
“It’s almost like the city is working against itself,” Beytien said. “They are putting their own investment in jeopardy.”
At-large City Council Member David Resnick said he visited Karavergos multiple times over the course of construction, often stopping there to order food. He acknowledged that it was “very hard” to find his way into the building during construction.
“These projects are great for the community, but for him individually, it was a pain,” Resnick said. “He just got swallowed up by the situation.”
Brad Cavanagh now holds the council’s Ward 4 seat, having been sworn in earlier this month. The ward is home to Corner Grill and Upcycle Dubuque.
Cavanagh noted that the ward has considerable infrastructure needs and emphasized that such improvements could provide a “huge benefit” in the area. However, he said limiting disruption to businesses during this process is critical.
He said he has spoken with Beytien and Karavergos about their concerns. Cavanagh believes opening up lines of communication is critical.
“The two words that come to mind are ‘early’ and ‘frequent,’” Cavanagh said. “We want to give people as much advance warning as we can, and we want to update them on the process as it continues.”