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Urban Warrior | El construction leaves dry taste in bar mouths

IN THE BARS on West Market Street, owners pour forth their tales of woe while guys in hardhats outside continue the slow march of reconstructing the Market-Frankford El.

IN THE BARS on West Market Street, owners pour forth their tales of woe while guys in hardhats outside continue the slow march of reconstructing the Market-Frankford El.

Last week led me to the Caprice Villa at 50th and Market, run by the Hines family for going on four decades. I sat at the bar with Willie Hines, who took over from his father and brother, as he tells me about long days with no customers. He's not kidding. We're the only people in the joint.

Day drinking, which always drew an older crowd that didn't go looking for trouble like the younger scene at night, has taken a dive since construction started seven years ago, Hines told me.

"They can't come in because there ain't no place to park," said Hines, who had to get a special permit just to be able to drive in supplies to his bar. "I got taxes to pay. I have to pay insurance. I'm trying to keep up with the bills."

Help may be on the way.

I told you two weeks ago how the owners of Big Jim Tucker's Lounge at 54th and Market are having trouble staying in business because of the giant SEPTA project, even though city, state and federal officials set aside $2.5 million to help merchants losing business to the constant street closures and other impacts from the construction. I was surprised to find that only a quarter of that relief money has been spent as the project enters its ninth and hopefully final year of work.

Some of the cash was caught in bureaucracy at the state Department of Community and Economic Development, which approved the cash last year but still had not distributed two grants for a combined $600,000, which had been requested by state Sen. Vincent Hughes.

DCED issued one check for $100,000 the day my first column ran and told me last week another check for $500,000 should be on its way before Christmas to the Philadelphia Commercial Development Corp., which has the job of distributing the money.

"That will be a great holiday gift," Hughes told me last week when I told him the merchants might be seeing some cash soon.

Aqil Sabur, interim president of PCDC, said he is ready to hand out the money as soon as he gets it. Priority will be given to merchants who are in areas where the construction still blocks traffic and to businesses that have not received prior help from PCDC. The agency last year finished distributing $619,107 in relief secured by City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell in 2004.

Blackwell was dismayed to hear the entire $750,000 she got City Council to provide for merchants had not been spent.

"These people are really suffering," Blackwell said. "I'm surprised there is one dime left. Our goal was to spend it all."

Hines got some of that money - about $3,200 - so he'll have to wait this time. He's not alone.

While DCED is putting another quarter of the overall relief money out on the street, the final half in federal dollars is still at least a year away from being spent.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah inserted $1.2 million into a 2005 federal transit bill to help West Market Street businesses impacted by the reconstruction. That money was set up to be spent across four years, from 2006 to 2009, so $550,088 already is available.

But PCDC has decided to hold those funds until the construction ends and then use it for marketing campaigns to draw customers to Market Street, to help merchants with accounting and other business services and to help streetscape the areas. The PCDC money will be part of a larger project by the city Streets Department and PennDOT.

That came as news to Fattah.

"I can live with that," Fattah told me last week. "But I thought some of that was going to be given to businesses as a way of helping them if they lost money during the construction." *

E-mail or call the Urban Warrior tip line at 215-854-4810. For past columns: