Shop Talk

Campbell Avenue merchants band together to boost the neighborhood.

At the Santa Barbara Ice Creamery, they're fighting the bulldozers with chocolate-covered bananas.

As the city continues a widening project on Campbell Avenue between Elm Street and Grant Road, the ice cream parlor is feeling the pinch that comes with the lane closures and limited access of any construction project.

"We're trying to be creative with individual cakes and chocolate-covered bananas, with and without almonds," says Jo Jensen, who works behind the counter at Santa Barbara.

Even though business has less than sweet recently, Jensen is encouraged to see that many of the area's business owners are banding together to form the Campbell Avenue Business Partnership, an advocacy group that aims to boost the fortunes of the scrappy independent shops and restaurants that line one of Tucson's busiest transportation corridors.

"I'm really proud of these merchants who have gotten together," says Jensen.

Britton Dornquast, who owns Hear's Music a few doors down from Santa Barbara, has been one of the chief organizers of the fledging business group, which just formally incorporated a few weeks ago.

"It was initially just a networking idea between the various businesses," says Dornquast. "We were not planning on incorporating and having long-term visions for the avenue."

To spread the word about the variety of businesses, Raging Sage coffeehouse owner Roger Sliker, who has a background in graphic design, assembled a slick flyer that highlights 50 of the businesses along the avenue. It's funded by $100 contributions from merchants who wished to be included. Many business owners who passed on the first offer are now calling to see if they can be included in future runs, he says.

The group's focus now stretches beyond the construction project, according to Sliker: "It's expanded now into a longer strategic thing for the whole Campbell Avenue corridor."

In the next couple of months, the group hopes to have banners hanging from light posts to establish an identify for the shopping district. They've also recently met with UA architecture professor Corky Poster to brainstorm ways to make the corridor more friendly to both pedestrians and drivers.

The budding merchant association grew out of a group that opposed last year's failed transportation proposition. The city's plan would have increased the city's sales tax by a half-cent to pay for a variety of transportation projects, including a grade-separated intersection that would have allowed Grant Road to tunnel beneath Campbell Avenue.

Campbell-area business owners, freaked by the prospect of an experimental 20-month-long construction project, were among the proposition's most vocal foes. After voters overwhelmingly rejected the plan, the merchants hung together, meeting among themselves and with city officials to discuss how to deal with the city's plans to widen Campbell to six lanes between Elm Street and Grant Road.

"We didn't originally envision this going beyond getting through and surviving this construction," says Dornquast, who says some area merchants feared they'd lose as much as 40 percent of their business during the construction. "To the city's credit, I must say they've done a really remarkable job to this point."

The city scheduled construction to avoid dampening holiday sales and has kept lane closures to a minimum during the $9.9-million-dollar project, which began last October and should wrap by August, say city transportation officials.

Dornquast also credits Bill Dorgan, a small-business consultant for the city, with guiding them through the bureaucratic maze of forming the association. Dorgan, in turn, praises the business owners for their organization and energy.

"They're seeing beyond the road construction," says Dorgan. "They're seeing what they would like this environment to be like."

Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar has mended fences with the merchants, some of whom were upset by her support of the grade-separated intersection. Dunbar has offered the group a meeting space at the nearby Ward 3 office and recently awarded them a back-to-basics grant to pay for the banners that will hang from streetlights.

"I wanted it to have a personality," says Dunbar. "Campbell Avenue is so important for businesses and those guys have such a hard time surviving. I wanted to do all I could to help."

So what does Dunbar think of the likelihood of building a grade-separated intersection at Grant and Campbell? "I don't think that's going to happen," says Dunbar. "I don't think anything is going to happen on transportation until we do a regional plan."

The future of the corridor is still up in the air. The city's long-term transportation plans call for widening Campbell by tearing down the businesses on the west side of the street, although the cash-starved transportation department isn't likely to begin condemnation proceedings anytime soon.

Dornquast reports that he's already seeing some new faces as a result of the effort.

"Just last weekend, we saw four people we'd never seen before, entering the shop with the flyer in their hands," Dornquast says.