Construction work for light rail is challenging the livelihood of an African-American hair salon in its path.

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Light rail is meant to bring redevelopment and prosperity to Seattle’s Rainier Valley, but three years of construction has nearly ruined a small hair salon along the route.

Visions of Beauty has lost more than half its customers, predominantly African-American, since Sound Transit work crews arrived on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South (MLK) in 2004, according to owner Jessie Jones. She has cut hair there for 22 years.

Closed lanes and torn-up pavement have made her clients think twice about trying to get there. For a business already reeling from a decline in the neighborhood’s black population, construction is making the challenge even tougher.

The shop used to open five days a week. Now, Jones cuts hair two days and works a second job. If the mortgage wasn’t already paid off, Jones said, the salon would have folded.

She is among many valley merchants surviving through their own willpower, with some government aid tossed in as partial compensation for the loss of business.

Street work on this four-mile stretch should have been done by now, but it’s a year behind the original schedule. The entire 16-mile, $2.7 billion line from downtown to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is expected to open by late 2009.

Of 286 businesses along MLK when the job started, 32 have closed, 12 of which specifically attributed their closures to light-rail construction, according to the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, created to help offset the impacts. Eighteen more moved to other neighborhoods.

For now, Visions of Beauty, at 6753 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S., is hanging on.

A painting on the front window, by Jones, shows a woman’s hair being straightened. The music of Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the O’Jays is played from time to time.

Not all that long ago, kids from the nearby housing project dropped by for $6 haircuts. But Holly Park has been demolished and replaced by NewHolly, where some homes sell for up to $450,000. Many of the African-American families who stopped by to have their hair cut, twisted, relaxed or curled have moved away, she says.

The toughest time, Jones said, came in January, when workers arrived without notice and tore up a sidewalk and replaced utility wires outside her shop door, she said.

“After all this is over you may have a nice light rail, but I will be another BLACK BUSINESS out in the cold,” she wrote to government officials. Lately, rain water is puddling near the entrance because of drainage problems caused by the construction, she said.

To survive, she said she must “upscale” her salon, in an effort to entice new customers, including whites and Asians. She may repaint the brick-colored interior in bright white and maroon, replace the lighting and advertise more.

80 percent completed

After delays caused by contaminated soils, tricky utility relocations, a regional concrete strike and overly optimistic schedules, the paving along MLK Way as part of the rail project is 80 percent completed.

“There has been a recommitted zeal on the project; Sound Transit and the contractor deserve credit,” says Jaime Garcia, the Community Development Fund director. But as crews recently poured up to a quarter-mile of concrete a day, an increase in lane closures caused a tough first quarter for the merchants.

The good news is paving will be done in May, said Dave Mazzo, project manager for contractor Parsons. Track installation will continue in the median, causing slowdowns.

In response to past delays, the community fund increased its limit on “business interruption” grants to $50,000 from $30,000. The fund has paid a total $9.3 million to 157 businesses. Of those getting aid, only five folded, but 59 already maxed out their eligibility.

Unless they can make a quick economic recovery, some are expected to go broke.

Sound Transit officials point out that 31 businesses have opened along MLK since July 2003, a year before heavy construction started. Seven later asked for aid, but were ineligible.

Jones, who has received about $11,700 in grants so far, places her shop’s odds of survival at 50-50.

Summer bounce

On a damp Sunday afternoon, Jones’ son, Andrew Love, is meticulously giving a friend a super-short haircut. Andrew’s daughter, 3-year-old Layla, sleeps on the chairs where he used to nap as a kid. Layla’s two brothers swivel on the salon chairs.

Growing up, Andrew wanted nothing to do with the business. Then last year, when he was a recreation supervisor for the Salvation Army at White Center, he started cutting boys’ hair for free. Their smiles gave him instant happiness, he said, so he enrolled in beauty college.

He aspires to run the salon, remove some clutter in back and appreciate the follicular diversity coming his way.

“For us, it’s just a matter to keep with it, to keep the lights on,” he said. “I think things will get better, after light rail is finished.”

A summer bounce back is critical for small businesses along the rail line, Garcia said. After all the hard work, he said, it would be sad to see a rash of business failures in the end.

Garcia urges visitors to drive the smooth new road, watch rails being installed and discover unique, ethnic shops.

“The table is kind of set, and we need people to come back and shop in the Rainier Valley.”

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com