It’s difficult for small businesses to carve out a niche in the marketplace – and even more so if shoppers have to navigate bulldozers and dump trucks to get to that niche.

For Joe Fournier, the owner of A&C Grocery on Washington Avenue in Portland’s East End, work on water mains and sewer lines has left the streets and sidewalks carved up in front of his market and lunch counter since he opened in February 2017, including a large hole that nearly blocked access to his store for a short time.

It got so bad, he said, that he considered a temporary name change to “Hole Foods Market.”

Now Fournier and his neighbors are getting some love from buy-local advocates, who are focusing efforts for this year’s Small Business Saturday on the Washington Avenue area in the East End and on Woodfords Corner, also hit by a major street construction project this year.

A&C Grocery owner Joe Fournier stocks shelves at the store on Washington Avenue on Friday.

Portland Buy Local is encouraging foot traffic in the neighborhoods by sponsoring small-business “bingo” cards Saturday. Shoppers can get the cards stamped at stores they visit and enter a gift giveaway if they collect enough stamps.

The organization encourages people to patronize local businesses to strengthen a neighborhood’s social fabric and to fortify its economy. Studies show that of every $100 spent at a locally owned independent business, $68 stays in the community. That’s more than twice the amount of money that remains in the community when it is spent at a chain.

Sales are especially welcome at businesses that have been dealing with construction headaches.

“It’s been a challenging year and change,” said Birch Shambaugh, who owns Woodford Food & Beverage, a restaurant where he has been able to watch the construction out his business’s front windows at 660 Forest Ave.

There, the work has been focused on making the busy intersection more pedestrian- and bike-friendly, but the work has been disruptive. At one point, a whole stretch of Forest Avenue was shut for more than two straight days to allow workers to rebuild railroad crossings.

Shambaugh said he felt that neighborhood residents purposely ignored the disruption to support his business, which he opened in January 2016.

“We are fundamentally a neighborhood business and feel humbled by the support of people around here,” he said. Woodford Food & Beverage will be the site of the drawing of punch cards Saturday afternoon, an event he said will double as a sort of wrap party for the construction work, which is mostly done.

On Washington Avenue, the end of the upheaval is still a few months off, but at least in sight. The city said this week that all the underground work there is done and contractors will return in the spring to reset granite curbing, seed grassy areas and raise manhole covers in preparation for the streets to be repaved.

Saben Anderson, the manager of Coffee by Design on Washington Avenue, said the work cut into business at his shop.

“It’s been trying,” Anderson said, but regulars still braved the construction for their daily cup of joe.

Anderson said he hopes for a boost Saturday, noting that Portland Buy Local works with neighborhood groups to encourage a good turnout.

“It’s going to be all the local entities coming together,” said Anderson, who sees the event as a way for many East End residents to reconnect with their local businesses.

If they do, that would follow a national trend.

Black Friday, which is largely given over to big retailers offering extravagant discounts, was expected to retain its spot as busiest shopping day of the weekend. The National Retail Federation forecast that 71 percent of the estimated 164 million customers expected to shop during the weekend headed out on Friday, but 41 percent – or 67 million – also expected to go to the stores on Saturday. The NRF’s survey also found that 78 percent of those planning to shop on Saturday would do so primarily to support small businesses.

And Portland’s rich tradition of supporting small business got a boost recently from Verizon, which said the Forest City is tops on its list of the best small cities in which to start a small business. The rankings were based on factors such as education, commute times, income, broadband access and taxes.

Portland was the only city in the Northeast to make the list and Verizon lauded the city’s port, high education rates and short commutes.

But things haven’t been that rosy in the work zones. Fournier said the construction work has had him rowing upstream with his new business.

In the first few months, he developed a steady stream of business in the late afternoon, with commuters heading to Falmouth, Cumberland and other towns north of Portland cutting through on Washington Avenue to get from downtown to Interstate 295. Many would stop off to get something from his market, Fournier said.

Once the digging began, however, they diverted to other streets, Fournier said, but he’s eager to see them return as the work winds down and Washington Avenue’s evolution resumes.

“It’s gone from an industrial corridor to a very cool and dynamic row of interesting, locally owned businesses,” he said.

And Fournier has tried to roll with the construction punches, with Instagram posts of him standing in the hole outside the front door and a sale price on sandwiches for those who captured pictures of a teal-colored dump truck that was among the fleet of construction vehicles crowding Washington Avenue.

“It’s been brutal to just about everyone on Washington Avenue, but I’ve tried to embrace it,” he said.

 

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