By Shirley Hawkins
CRENSHAW — Chip Smith, co-owner of Harrison-Ross Mortuary, is smiling more this week.
At a town hall rally earlier this month, Smith informed a group of local business owners that his business was floundering due to the construction of the Crenshaw-LAX Light Rail Line that has been blocking sidewalks from 43rd to 48th Street along Crenshaw Boulevard
The constant dust and noise had driven away customers who could not find the entrance to his business and the drop in customers had financially affected his business.
But at a second town hall rally July 20, Smith indicated that the gloomy clouds had lifted.
“Real positive things are happening since the last meeting,” said Smith, who had been trying to qualify for Business Interruption Funds (BIF), a grant supplied by Pacific Coast Regional to assist businesses affected by the ongoing construction.
Smith had finally been approved for a grant.
“All the while I felt I was fighting this [battle] by myself, but the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and PCR stepped up,” he said.
Four other businesses also reported that PCR had recently approved their applications to receive BIF funds, including the Ivy League Pre-School and Hog Parts Pros.
“These businesses were already in the process of receiving BIF funds. They just happened to be approved prior to [the July 20] meeting,” said Mark Robertson Sr., president and CEO of Pacific Coast Regional, whose company has been contracted by the MTA to approve the grants.
The good news was uplifting for Tony Muhammad, west coast regional director of the Nation of Islam, who received an urgent phone call a few weeks ago from Dion Rambo of Rambo House, a public relations and marketing firm, to “step in” and help the troubled business owners.
Muhammad said he was happy that the owners were finally receiving financial help, but he advised them to remain vigilant, citing a number of issues that had yet to be addressed.
“We’re setting up a meeting with [MTA] representatives next week,” Muhammad said. “We want to make sure that you get compensated for your business. We are going to put together a team to be the watchdogs over the whole application process and we are bringing out people to help you with your paperwork.”
“We won’t let Harrison-Ross close. If we get this done, I won’t have to pay for my funeral,” he said with a laugh.
Muhammad then distributed and discussed a two-page bulletin that outlined a number of issues that concerned community residents felt needed to be addressed.
“There are some things we are going to demand during and after construction,” he told the audience July 20. “We feel that businesses established within two years should still be compensated.”
Muhammad also said that some community residents felt that an alternate fund (a mini-BIF) should be instituted to provide for the cost of moving to a new location either on or off the Crenshaw corridor.
“We also think that the requirement of having only 25 employees is unfair,” he said. “Third generation black-owned businesses must be given consideration and not be dismissed due to the number of employees.”
The minister also wanted clarification of whether business owners should make a claim to the MTA or Walsh Shea, the primary contractor on the project, if their business or property had been damaged.
“We had one business owner report that due to the heavy construction, a worker from Walsh-Shea, the construction company working on the light rail project, had broken his front window. The worker shrugged and said, ‘Don’t approach me. I’m not a supervisor.’”
Another business owner who owned a boutique said that dust and dirt from Walsh-Shea bulldozers were covering her clothes in the store.
“Walsh-Shea had to take out a bond in case they did any damage, but we need a very clear contact person, a phone number and a website to assist in monitoring claims,” Muhammad added.
Other residents observed that the workers employed by Walsh-Shea appear to be mean-spirited and disconnected from the community.
“Someone needs to speak to the workers at Walsh-Shea about community relations,” Muhammad said.
Other concerns that came up were businesses adjacent to the construction that also were impacted by the noise should be compensated and that businesses that had failed during construction should be able to apply for re-start funding once construction is done.
“Business owners report that customers just stop coming due to the need to navigate construction-related equipment and debris,” Muhammad said. “We feel they should be compensated on a sliding scale, depending on their location.”
Muhammad said the MTA also needs to address the parking issue.
“We feel they need to build a parking structure for the community,” he said.
The minister also wanted to know if any black subcontractors had been granted contracts to work on the light rail line.
“I want to know how many people who look like me are working on this project,” he said. “Thirty percent of the employees should be from this neighborhood.”
City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson briefly stopped by the meeting.
“We also got in touch with [the MTA],” said Harris-Dawson, who added that he had written a letter to the transportation agency and that he was lending his support to the business owners.
Muhammad said it is time the community unites.
“I just drove through Chinatown and [it is] thriving,” he said. “I drove through Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Little Armenia and Little Cambodia. The city even put up signs for them. Brothers and sisters, where’s Africa Town?” he asked the audience.
“We are going to have to do all we can to save our community and ourselves, ” Muhammad added.
He said a third town hall will be scheduled after next week’s meeting with MTA representatives.
Despite the good news, residents are still grappling with the continued drilling and noise that permeates the corridor.
“They drill all day and all night,” said Deborah Roberson, whose back yard is next to Harrison-Ross. “I’m not able to sleep at night. I think there’s an earthquake shaking the ground when I’m lying in my bed.”