National Hockey League lockout hurting Uptown merchants, workers
The neighborhood around Consol Energy Center has been struggling through the NHL's lockout. The Small Business Administration will be offering free counseling services to businesses in 23 cities that pay bills and staff largely on revenue from hockey crowds.
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A great day for hockey is a great day for business on Fifth Avenue, Uptown -- wall-to-wall at the Souper Bowl, packed to the gills at Shale's Cafe. But three months into the National Hockey League lockout, the hurt is deepening for merchants who depend on revenue from events at the Consol Energy Center.
"This is killing us," a dejected Rachel Brown, manager of Cafe Fifth Avenue, said Tuesday evening as she looked out on a near-empty bar a block from Consol. "Right about now I'm nine grand [in earnings] behind where I was at last year."
It was hoped that Tuesday night's West Virginia University-Duquesne University basketball game and tonight's Wiz Khalifa concert would provide a welcomed uptick in a landscape that will have been devoid of 36 hockey games by the end of this month.
But a visit to three establishments within a block of the arena around tip-off time at 7:05 p.m. showed that the most noise and excitement was being drummed up by the sports anchors on ESPN who were broadcasting to mostly empty stools.
A total of perhaps two dozen patrons were seated in Cafe Fifth Avenue, the Souper Bowl and Shale's -- far fewer than a typical hockey night in Pittsburgh.
"You can see what it's doing for us," Ms. Brown said as she indicated her paltry business. When the Penguins are playing, "both floors would be packed solid. The bar is eight deep."
"We're still dealing with losses from the last lockout" in 2004-05, said Carly Sypherd, a member of the family that owns the Souper Bowl. "Bills don't stop even if hockey does."
When hockey is in full swing the Souper Bowl has both floors open and 11 servers. Tuesday night only the upstairs was in swing with three servers.
"I bought a house last year, so that's getting difficult. I need new tires for my car. It's getting scary," said Ms. Sypherd, standing under a banner welcoming people to "Penguins Country."
"I've never had to plan down to the dollar," she continued. "I've always had cash on hand. Now I'm pinching my pennies to pay my bills."
The Small Business Administration recognizes the impact and will be initiating free counseling services to businesses in 23 cities that pay bills and staff largely on revenue from ice hockey crowds.
Carl Knoblock, district director of the Western Pennsylvania Small Business Administration, said the SBA is planning a January event in conjunction with the small business development centers at the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University to advise retailers of strategies to diversify their market.
"We will be going out to show people how to think differently," Mr. Knoblock said. "We tend to get comfortable with our routines when everything is normal but when we get these unpredicted abnormals like a strike or if the Steelers don't make the playoffs, those are revenue sources restaurant owners and retail are counting on.
"There are other markets. Lots of times people just don't look at them because they've been busy."
In the meantime, the Small Business Development Center at Pitt is working with some businesses that are affected by the lockout, said its director, Ray Vargo.
Lynne Glover, communications director at VisitPittsburgh, said the revenue losses to tourism and regular businesses due to the lockout are an estimated $2.2 million for each game not played.
"I live and die based on events," said Terry O'Brien, owner of Shale's Cafe, an 80-year-old bar on Fifth Avenue a block from the arena. "I've probably lost 70 percent of my business since the lockout."
Pointing toward the arena, Mr. O'Brien said, "A substantial part of my business is from people who work over there. They'd come after the games. I know they're hurting, too."
Shale's bartender Brock Wilson, who was serving only two women after the pre-game rush of business, said usually there are between 150 and 200 customers before a hockey game. Tuesday night, Mr. Wilson estimated, only about 50 came into the bar before the basketball game.
Representatives from AEG Facilities, the company that manages the arena, could not be reached to comment on the toll the lockout has taken among staff that work at the arena.
"My income's one-third what it used to be," said Terrie Rihn, a cashier at Milano, a restaurant and bar nearby. "All the businesses around us are hurting. I saw two ladies who work at the arena who I hadn't seen in a long time. They've been laid off but were called back" for Tuesday's and tonight's events.
Part-time waitresses who used to work three or four days at the Souper Bowl have been cut to one, Ms. Sypherd said.
"We've had to lay off two people, and we've lost a lot of part-time Duquesne students. The hockey crowd is our mainstay, probably 80 percent of our business. We have a decent lunch crowd, but it doesn't compare. "
"This has hurt an awful lot," Ms. Rihn said. "I told my kids it's going to be a lean Christmas."
First Published December 12, 2012 12:00 am