As construction fences go up, Fulton Mall businesses struggle

Three months into the 14-month construction project that will transform downtown Fresno’s Fulton Mall into a bustling street with cars, some businesses already are hurting.

A few business owners at the south end of the mall say construction and fences mean customers can’t find them or think they’re closed. Other businesses are unaffected by construction so far. And some people are getting creative with “cash mobs,” videos and other efforts to keep customers coming in.

One thing is sure: Fulton Mall looks a lot different these days. Instead of a shady wide pedestrian mall, the south end of the mall near Inyo Street was ripped up last week. Six-foot-tall chain-link fences lined with green barriers separated the sights of construction from pedestrians, but not the sounds.

Construction also is going hot and heavy at the north end near CVS and Tuolumne Street. The businesses are open, though customers must walk through passageways that almost feel like tunnels to get to some of them.

“It’s now a little more of a maze to get around, but all of them still have access,” said Aaron Blair, president and CEO of the Downtown Fresno Partnership.

Several large signs note that all businesses are open during construction and individual signs – sometimes handwritten – point the way to specific shops and restaurants.

Still, the construction has put a dent in what normally is a busy prom season for two formalwear shops.

Femme dress shop at 917 Fulton Mall has a rainbow of brightly colored dresses in stock. Last year at this time, it was selling lots of them. This year is different.

“A lot of people are scared to come because of everything” going on, said Femme manager Mary Hernandez. “The sales have gone down more than 50 percent.”

The workers had put up handwritten signs for Femme, but they got rained on. Hernandez said she also is frustrated with trash that accumulates because there aren’t enough trash cans.

It’s a similar story at Sugar Sugar formalwear across the mall.

“A lot of people, they think that we’re closed,” said salesperson Jeanette Torres.

Sugar Sugar and a few stores have been opening later than the regular 10 a.m. time.

“There’s no point (to opening earlier) because there’s not going to be customers,” she said.

China Express restaurant also is feeling the pinch.

“Oh yeah, of course. It’s very slow,” said Nicolas Barrios, who was the only person manning the restaurant on a recent morning.

He said they used to get between 40 and 45 people for lunch; now it’s about 10.

“We can’t survive like this,” he said, adding that the owner had looked into moving the restaurant or starting a cart, but nothing came of it.

Some Fulton Mall customers used to park in the lot with meters on Inyo Street that is now closed to the public and serving as a staging area for construction workers and vehicles.

A worker at one restaurant, the Parsley Garden Cafe, said construction hasn’t affected them at all – so far. The restaurant is in the middle of the mall where construction hasn’t started yet.

From the beginning, the city and the Downtown Fresno Partnership have tried to ease the disruptions from construction.

The city made arrangements so affected businesses could validate parking, making it free for two hours at the four city garages downtown.

The Fresno City Council also approved a Construction Impact Assistance Program that waives business license taxes and reduces or waives planning and development fees for downtown businesses during the project. A few businesses have filed for the business license tax waiver, but none yet have applied for the planning and development waiver, according to the city.

Blair, of the Downtown Fresno Partnership, says all the businesses are welcome to promote themselves during the organization’s scheduled appearances on Channel 24 (KSEE) news.

And the partnership is promoting weekly cash mobs on its Facebook page. The organization picks a business, often a restaurant, and encourages people to mob the place at lunchtime on a Friday, giving it an influx of business and cash.

Casa de Tamales is getting creative with its efforts to welcome construction workers and customers.

The tamales restaurant opened its Fulton Mall location Feb. 1, so owner Liz Sanchez can’t say how business compares to this time last year.

But she is making sure customers know they’re open.

They hand out fliers outside the courthouse’s jury room, have special promotions on Instagram and had banners made. Handwritten signs tempt customers, saying things like: “There’s tamales at the end of the tunnel.”

“We’re just doing old-school marketing,” Sanchez said. “We’re just coming up with any way to remind people we’re there and open for business.”

Construction workers have made up a portion of Casa de Tamales’ business lately.

Saying the construction workers have been helpful, Sanchez decided to host an appreciation dinner for the construction workers and their families.

The restaurant decided to have a little fun last week, sharing a video by Top Hand Media featuring Casa de Tamales employee Mariela Barragan inviting workers to the tune of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” She handed out fliers and Casa de Tamales stickers, frequently slapping them on construction workers’ hardhats.

Bethany Clough: 559-441-6431, @BethanyClough