If you want a haircut from Louie Manzo right now, you can pretty much come in any time and plop down in a chair. And don’t worry about fighting for a parking spot.

After running Louie’s Hairstyling out of the same location on Courtland Avenue for 43 years, business has suddenly dipped way down.

He doesn’t have to look far to find the culprit — he blames construction of the ION light rail line just outside his doors.

“It’s Wednesday afternoon, and usually I’m busy. But where is everybody?” he asked, pacing the floor of his empty shop. “This scares customers away. They don’t like obstacle courses … This is destroying my business.”

Road closures, detours and traffic snarls caused by the construction have made it a headache to reach the Courtland Place Plaza where Manzo is located. He had to let go two of his part-time hairstylists because fewer customers were coming in, he said.

It’s the same story with Manzo’s fellow businesses at 1144 Courtland Ave East. They say they’re cutting back employees’ hours, laying off staff, closing early and otherwise trying to trim their costs as people avoid the area due to construction.

Almost all of them report business is down by about a third since the ION work began in October. This week, they got another blow — learning Courtland Avenue will be closed from Blockline to Manitou Drive to all but local traffic for six months. Alternative access to the plaza will be through Shelley Drive.

Next door, Nick and Vicky Du are worried they won’t be able to survive a cut to their convenience store’s traffic much longer. They remortgaged their house to buy Milk Convenience Fair a year ago, and say they’re barely covering their bills since construction started.

“It’s very bad. We work very hard, but I don’t know if I can pay my hydro and rent. If I lose my business, I lose everything,” Nick Du said. “We couldn’t make any money when the construction started, but thought it was only for a few months and we’d back on the right track.”

At the plaza’s Tim Hortons, the tables shake every time a pile driver operating a few metres away hammers the ground. The drive-through speaker faces the machinery, and the relentless hammering can drown out customers trying to make orders.

“We’re down quite a bit,” said Kevin Ernest, the franchise’s owner. “It’s been challenging, and it’s not going to let up for a while. We’ve had to cut back on hours.”

Tatiana Kouzmina, sales floor manager at the neighbouring Talize discount store, said she’s already had to trim some of her staff’s shifts, and is concerned more cuts will have to come.

“It’s a nightmare getting to the store,” she said. “It’s so hard to get here, so they’re just not coming. Yesterday, our sales were half what they were the year before.”

Kitchener councillor John Gazzola said he empathizes with the businesses, and suggested they document their lost revenue and try to make a claim against the city and Region of Waterloo, which is overseeing the ION project.

“I can totally appreciate where they’re coming from. Through no fault of their own, they’re having a loss of business,” he said.

The city should make a bigger issue of the impact LRT construction is having on local businesses, because it has more clout with the region, he said.

“There’s a lot of businesses that are hurting. Down the road, it might be a wonderful world, but they may well be out of business. It’ll be too late for them,” he said.

There is no compensation fund for businesses hurt by ION construction, but affected owners can try to recoup some lost revenues through the courts — as they could for any public infrastructure project, said regional councillor Tom Galloway. It’s not an easy process, however, since municipalities have the right to do construction.

“We feel for these businesses. They did receive some notice this was coming, but I know that’s little comfort when your business is going down,” he said, adding the region will also look at improving signage to help the plaza’s businesses.

That may be little relief for people like Trixie Buckley, who owns Paris and Company, a dog grooming business, in the plaza. Her regulars are keeping her alive — before construction started, she says she’d get about 10 new customers a week.

Now she’s lucky to see one new client a week.

“I’m not seeing many new customers. They just can’t be bothered to come here,” she said.

One door down, Pisa Pizzeria co-owner Les Forgacs sat alone in his empty shop next to a display of cold pizza slices. The impact from the ION construction was immediate, he said.

“This is crazy for me, there’s no foot traffic anymore,” he said. “You need to do the LRT. We understand that. But there’s got to be a smarter way to do this. They don’t think about small businesses.”

Back at Louie’s Hairstyling, it’s all too quiet, save for the drone of construction outside.

Manzo, 67, says he was planning to retire, but says no one wants to buy a small business in the middle of a construction zone. Even loyal regulars are going elsewhere for trims.

His wife, Kathy Manzo, meanwhile, is frustrated at what she says is a lack of communication from the region on ongoing disruptions. If this keeps up, she’s worried she and her husband will lose their business.

They’re begging for help — better signs, some advertising or a shorter construction period — anything to help draw customers back to their once-busy plaza.

“Please tell people we’re open,” added hairstylist Erica White. “We’ve got customers going in circles just trying to figure out how to get in here.”

Source: The Waterloo Region Record