Azukar Coffee may have been a destination along the light rail extension that will eventually extend from downtown along Central Avenue in South Phoenix and end on Baseline Road.
Instead, the cafe, which showcased the neighborhood’s Mexican culture and entrepreneurship, joins nearly two dozen other companies as victims of light rail construction and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a September 2 post on Instagram, Azukar Coffee, which opened in 2017, announced its final closure.
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For four years a black banner over the door of Azukar greeted neighbors and visitors with the words: “Cafecito. Culture. Life.“Printed in blue letters. These words – coffee, culture and life in Spanish – meant community for Sandra Flores, the owner of the café.
“For me, coffee means sharing a little moment of joy with others. If an Abuelo or Abuela says to you: “Let’s have a coffee”, they tell you: “Let’s talk. Let’s spend a moment together, ‘”Flores told dem Arizona mirror.
Located in a small building on the east side of Central Avenue north of Baseline Road, the cafe quickly became a meeting place for the neighborhood. Flores regularly shared Azukar’s courtyard, which is decorated with three murals, one by local artist La Morena. Azukar set up a communal altar during the Día de Muertos and held outdoor yoga classes, open mic on some evenings, and a Saturday morning market where other entrepreneurs sold jewelry and handicrafts.
Behind the dark blue door, Flores often shuffled in front of a steaming espresso machine and made Horchata Cold brew or oat milk latte with mesquite syrup. One of her daughters sometimes placed orders next to a fresh display sweet bread under a glass dome.
The construction of a 5.5 mile light rail extension by Valley Metro which began in October 2019 changed the neighborhood, made Azukar more difficult to access, and distracted customers from the street that was historically the main route in and out of South Phoenix.
The program provides cash assistance to companies on the Valley Metro construction path
Hillary Foose, spokeswoman for Valley Metro, said Azukar is one of the companies to recently benefit from a new grant program for companies damaged by construction projects for Valley Metro’s light rail.
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The $ 2.3 million program was launched in March with funding from the City of Phoenix and the nonprofit Phoenix Community Development & Investment Corporation.
The program has so far distributed nearly $ 253,200 to 50 companies affected by two light rail construction projects – the South Phoenix Expansion and the Northwest valley in addition.
The program, known as the Small Business Financial Assistance Program, divides funds into two categories, one up to $ 3,000 and a second up to $ 9,000.
Of the 50 companies that have benefited, 46 are in South Phoenix, Foose said.
Valley Metro also provides assistance with marketing, signage, business consulting, and other business related questions for those affected by light rail construction projects.
Flores said the construction adds an added barrier to a tough business climate: the pandemic also made it difficult for her to plan events, which are a major source of customers for the small business.
22 stores near Central Avenue in South Phoenix are closed
According to the city’s Department of Economic Development, there were 269 businesses along the Central Avenue corridor south of the Salt River between 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street as of November 2020.
There were 243 companies last month, including four new ones. That means 22 stores will close in less than a year.
Eric Toll, spokesman for the city’s community and economic development department, said it was difficult to measure whether the closings were due to the construction of light rail vehicles or other difficulties related to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he said the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn was likely to have a bigger impact than building light rail vehicles.
Toll pointed out that companies south of the Salt River in the light rail construction corridor had a closure rate of 11% last November, but 2% in August 2021.
“The (business) closure rate has improved from the worst pandemic in the past year,” he said.
Toll added that businesses facing challenges can visit the city Small business toolbox online or call the small business support team known as TeamPHX at (602) 262-5040.
“We can’t stand to see our community in ruins”
The iconic row of palm trees that lined the center of Central Avenue has disappeared. Instead, orange traffic cones and barriers and temporary signage are disrupting the river. There are no longer any lanes to turn off and left turns are not allowed at some major intersections as construction workers and heavy machinery dig up the road to lay buried utility lines.
According to Valley Metro, this construction phase is the most disruptive.
“There are a lot of lane restrictions,” said Foose. “It’s the dirtiest. It’s the loudest. It is the most disruptive phase of construction. “
The schedule for completing the utility relocation phase is by mid-2022, she said. Crews will start blocking tracks in 2022 and the project is expected to be completed in 2024.
For Flores, the view of a disrupted road that was once the main thoroughfare of South Phoenix but has now become an obstacle to businesses longing for success has become an intolerable sight.
“We can’t stand to see our community in ruins with construction work, so Azukar is closed,” she wrote in a post on the small business’s Instagram page. “We still have a lot of love to give away and look forward to a future.”
Foose of Valley Metro lamented the closure of Azukar.
“This is certainly sad news and we want to take care of all the business we can and this news hits our team as well. We don’t want to see this, and we want to do everything in our power to go about our business, ”she said.
For Flores, Azukar was their first big company. She and her husband occasionally rented inflatables, but Flores wanted to create a space where their neighborhoods could meet, connect, and improve. Flores came up with the idea of a coffee shop to make this happen, she said.
“I’ve lived in South Phoenix all my life,” she said. “I wanted to see the community improve, so I put my passions together to improve the place I am and share something that I enjoy and that unites people.”
It took Flores almost three years of work to open Azukar – almost as long as the cafe was open.
“I had to learn quickly. It was intense, but very nice, ”she said.
Flores did not provide any details of what she will do in the future. But her passion for building a common space and vision for improving their neighborhood that led her to open Azukar remains, she said.
“I am so grateful for the community that has supported us. You brought life to the business, ”she said. “I am happy because in the end I know that Azukar was an inspiration for many people.”