On a rainy and unusually humid Monday morning, Rubia Herrera is mopping the floors of Imagen Beauty Salon in Elyria-Swansea, where she’s the manager. Her blonde hair is pulled into a ponytail as she tries to collect all of the dust that’s accumulated since Saturday. It’s a chore that’s only become more necessary since construction began on the I-70 viaduct that casts a shadow over this small Josephine Shopping Center, which is occupied primarily by Latino-run businesses. Removing the 55-year-old viaduct is just one part of the $1.3 billion Central 70 Project that started last summer and will continue until 2022.

Dust is among Herrera’s more manageable problems. More urgent is the 17-year-old salon’s lack of customers. “With the street closures, my clients are not able to get here,” the El Salvador native tells me through a translator. “I think they’re going someplace else because there’s no parking, streets are closed, and there are no sidewalks.” The salon used to bring in about $2,600 per week, but now, revenue has decreased to closer to $800 each week, even though summer is traditionally the salon’s busiest season. Herrera’s commission has similarly shrunk. This morning, the shopping center’s small parking lot is already full, taken up by those attending the Zumba class a few doors down and grabbing a bite at the neighboring taqueria or panadería (bakery). Josephine Street is down from two lanes to one. Across the street, construction workers are well into their days, digging a large hole beneath the viaduct so the interstate can be lowered.

It’s not all bad news, though: Imagen Beauty Salon qualified for a Business Impact Opportunity (BIO) Fund grant through the Denver Economic Development & Opportunity (DEDO) office. The pilot program, which launched in January, provides technical assistance and one-time funds of up to $5,000 to long-standing small businesses in Globeville, Elyria-Swansea, and Northeast Park Hill that have taken an economic hit as a result of infrastructure construction and/or socioeconomic changes.

“Our small and legacy neighborhood businesses are critical to preserving the culture [and history] of our neighborhoods. They’re also the most vulnerable to impacts from construction and changing conditions,” says Deborah Cameron, DEDO’s chief business development officer. She calls the BIO Fund “one tool in a toolbox of many other things” to help these businesses “weather the change.” DEDO is gathering data on how the monetary support is helping businesses and plans to expand the offering to additional neighborhoods if it’s deemed a beneficial tool.

Thus far, four businesses have received grants, and two more have been approved. “Our expectation is, by the end of 2019, to serve 20 to 25 businesses with monetary support and many more with technical support…connecting them with other resources that might be more suitable for them than this specific grant,” Cameron says.

Imagen Beauty Salon is located in a small shopping center in Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood. Photo by Daliah Singer

Herrera chose not to share the specific amount the salon received for safety reasons (a person or persons broke into the salon soon after it received the grant) but says she is using the money on fixed expenses such as rent and utilities to survive what she says is a 50 percent reduction in profits. “I think it will help for another three months,” she says. “I’m trying to be very patient, but it’s discouraging. Summer is our high season and it’s low. Hopefully people in the neighborhood will get used to the construction and things will normalize.”

In the meantime, in an effort to entice clients to return, the salon is making other improvements. A local furniture store and Mile High United Way—which is administering the BIO Fund program—donated updated furniture. United Way volunteers also helped paint the salon, transforming it with a chic gray hue.

Even with the monetary and decor boosts, Herrera and the neighboring businesses are still concerned with their next steps. Will the salon need to close or move? Or will the I-70 improvements spur the shopping center’s owner to sell the property and make a handsome profit? “I think about it, but I don’t want it to happen,” Herrera says. “I like it here.”

Not-So-Fresh Air

Maintaining neighborhood businesses is just one the priorities city officials and other organizations are working to address. The environmental and health impacts of ongoing construction is another. Just two years ago, the 80216 zip code, which encompasses Globeville and Elyria-Swansea and is populated primarily by working-class Latino families, was named the most polluted in the country.

Since talk of the Central 70 project began more than a decade ago, community members and environmental groups have raised concerns about how airborne dust and other kicked-up particles could further harm residents’ health—going so far as to file a lawsuit in July 2017 that was settled in December 2018 (read the settlement agreement). As part of the settlement, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) agreed to a number of conditions, including funding a community health study overseen by an “independent, qualified contractor with demonstrated expertise” and installing air monitors at Swansea Elementary School and four other locations.

CDOT and the city of Denver also partnered with Energy Outreach Colorado (EOC) to weatherize homes, reduce energy costs, and improve living conditions for those residing one block north and one block south of the construction route, between Brighton and Colorado boulevards. The project, named Adelante, began in September 2017 and wrapped up at the end of 2018, though some final inspections and updates are still being completed.

“In terms of highway project mitigation, this project is the first of its kind in the country,” says Luke Ilderton, EOC’s chief program officer. “When we started this project, our main motivation was [the fact that] this community has been known for a very long time to be vulnerable, an economically depressed community….Many of the homes are over 100 years old and were fairly antiquated and in need of repair.”

More than 250 houses participated in the effort, at no cost to the residents who received new insulation in their attics, LED lightbulbs, programmable thermostats, carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, portable air conditioners, better windows, and new furnaces when necessary, among other upgrades. (Funding came from CDOT and the city of Denver.)

Brenda Lovato was a beneficiary. She’s lived in her viaduct-adjacent brick house for nearly 40 years and raised five children in the neighborhood. (Her husband died of cancer at age 59.) She received two portable A/C units, a new fridge, and all of the windows in her two-story home were replaced; contractors also explained how her furnace worked so, when the weather turns, she can finally be sure that heat will reach the upstairs bedrooms. Since her new windows were put in place, Lovato has noticed her house doesn’t get as dusty, and she can no longer hear the traffic or nearby construction when they’re closed.

She’s also felt the impact on her wallet. A few years ago, she says, her energy bill was around $300. Last month, it was closer to $100. “I’m satisfied,” she says, though she still wants a grocery store in the neighborhood. “I’m sure everything will be better as time goes.”

EOC believes there’s more to be done, though. The organization independently launched phase two a few weeks ago to extend the work to the next set of blocks. The organization teamed up with DEDO and is working to secure the funding needed to reach as many residents as possible. “We felt this is the time to really continue to put emphasis on how to address the community needs,” Ilderton says. “We’re trying to serve the next block and stabilize those homes so they’re prepared to go through same disruption their neighbors are.”

Businesses interested in learning more about the BIO Fund grant should connect with Mile High United Way via email (UBA@unitedwaydenver.org) or phone (303-561-2301). Owners will need to fill out an application outlining how the money would be used; demonstrate the negative financial impact construction or socioeconomic changes are having on their company; and meet DEDO’s eligibility criteria, including generating $500,000 or less in annual gross revenue and employing 25 or fewer people. Women-, minority-, and veteran-owned businesses are especially encouraged to apply.

Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at daliahsinger.com.