Construction cripples merchants on West King

By Emily Hoover |

Present Moment Café and Kulture Hookah Lounge feel the destructive effects of continued construction on West King Street.

“The construction was supposed to benefit the area,” said Yvette Schindler, owner of Present Moment Café, an organic eatery on the street.

“But, if it doesn’t hurry up, there will be no merchants left,” she said. “It should have been finished sooner. In another area, it would have been finished sooner.”

Schindler, a local for over a decade, opened Present Moment three years ago. She chose West King because it is within walking distance for Flagler students and boaters at the marina.

Schindler also loves the ambiance. Instead of a place dependent on tourists, West King caters to locals and transients.

“People come from all over to West King. It is the main artery,” she said. “I love the neighborhood. It is the New Orleans of St. Augustine.”

As a celebrated part of local culture, Present Moment participates in Art Walk and houses live music every week. Schindler purchases local produce and hires local artists for graphic design work and other forms of advertising.

But due to slow season and the construction, she has had to cut employee hours and said she “works more for free” to keep up with rent and other expenses.

Kulture Hookah Lounge, which opened last year, faces similar struggles. Owners Ray Adieh and Amir Amireh have been forced to terminate two part-time employees from Flagler College as well as a student deejay, because of lack of business. They have also opened up for lunch to increase the number of customers.

“There is a big difference in business,” Amireh said. “If this was our main source of income, we would have shut down.”

Kulture also supports local music, perpetuating the sense of community. Amireh said 95 percent of Kulture’s live entertainment is comprised of deejays and bands that live in or near St. Augustine.

While Schindler believes the city of St. Augustine has not completed the construction in a timely fashion due to cost, Amireh cites West King’s reputation as a primary reason for the delay.

“There has been a lot of money put into this,” he said. “West King is known as the bad side. Really, it is a place for new people and students. This is a place that is happening.”

As merchants struggle for business during the recession, the construction only makes matters worse. Schindler mentioned dust from the road coming into her café.

Amireh, who said he has friends all over the country in similar situations, disapproves of the lack of compensation from the city.

“There is no support here,” he said. “They’re taking down signs when they should be supporting us with signs from the road. You’ve got to help businesses on the inside to gather business from outside.”

Although no bicycle paths are available and detours push traffic south, both Schindler and Amireh know the construction will cease. Ideally, West King Street will become a continuation of downtown, lessening crowds. If the merchants survive, the restoration of the road will connect the city.

“The one positive I see right now is a 10-foot sidewalk,” Schindler said with a smile. “Hopefully, one day there will be people walking on it.”
County Engineer Press Tompkins expects the project to be finished in spring 2010.

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