Façade grant sparks change on West Bank

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Ashanti Austin is a firm believer that it’s what’s on the inside that counts — but that doesn’t mean the outside doesn’t matter.

While her neighbors at Midwest Mountaineering  sport a uniform “athletic” look, The Hub Bicycle Co-op owner throws on a t-shirt and basketball shorts before heading to work.

Similarly, she said her store is “nothing special” to look at, pointing to her hand-painted windows that pale in comparison to the banners and neon signs of the outdoor superstore next door.

“We struggle with looking different from Midwest Mountaineering,” she said. “We spend more time and money on quality customer service because that’s what our focus is — relationships.”

Despite Austin’s customer-based business model, she said the exterior is becoming increasingly important to all businesses with difficult economic times, heavy construction nearby and an increasing pressure to look the part.

As a result, The Hub is one of about a dozen West Bank businesses that has benefited from the city-wide Façade Improvement Matching Grant Program,  which reimburses businesses for making exterior renovations.

The West Bank Business Association  qualified for the program, part of the Minneapolis’ Great Streets Neighborhood Business District Program  designed to help business along commercial corridors succeed and develop.

The WBBA has received $120,000 in the past three years to help businesses in the area get a facelift, according to Rebecca Parrell, the grant program’s coordinator.

During the application process, businesses propose a project which could include murals, paint, brickwork or new signage and apply for the necessary permits from the city before making improvements.

Once the project is approved, the WBBA will match every dollar spent on the project and reimburse a business for up to $7,500.

Adrienne Peirce, executive director of the WBBA, said the grant has gone a long way for businesses in a very difficult area.

“West Bank is a pretty challenging area for us,” she said. “We have a really high new-American population, and with light-rail construction and detours, this is very difficult time.”

Peirce said getting the word out about the available funds is a labor of love.

She said members of the association have regularly gone door-to-door to hand-deliver information about the program.

Austin fixed some broken windows at The Hub with the funding.

Though Peirce said those improvements may not seem like much, they can be very costly to a business.

Austin agreed. She said the window repairs last February would have cost the business thousands.

“We want to improve the look of the store,” she said. “But we have to make mandatory repairs first.”

According to the Façade Design Guide distributed to businesses, The Hub is doing the right thing. The guide states that what may seem like minor repairs are actually important to “preserving the value of the building.”

While Peirce said most of the participating West Bank businesses have had to use the matching program for these less-than-dramatic repairs, it contributes to the overall streetscape and appeal of the area.

“Overall, it improves the neighborhood, which takes a lot,” she said. “Businesses are very appreciative that [the program] is there.”

Russom Solomon, owner of the Red Sea Bar and Restaurant, said improvements to the neighborhood as a whole are the best aspect of the grants.

While many are concerned with bringing in business, he said he hopes the changes contribute to a greater cause.

“The look of an area can make it a safer place,” said Solomon, chairman of the West Bank Safety Committee. “More lights, more attractive buildings — all of these things are effective at deterring crime.”

The Red Sea restaurant also used grant funding to fund a new awning, which he said adds value and appeal.

Adrienne Dorn of the Cedar Cultural Center  said she couldn’t agree more with Solomon.

The center used the grant to help fund the restoration of its original marquee.

Dorn said the marquee has become a landmark of the Cedar-Riverside area since its 2008 renovation, and the additional lighting has made the stigmatized area seem more inviting.

Both Austin and Dorn fear that the opportunity may not be equally accessible to all West Bank businesses.

“You won’t see immigrant-owned businesses as success stories,” Austin said. “The most at-risk businesses are still hanging on by a thread.”

Similarly, Peirce said footing the entire bill for a renovation can be a challenge for many new businesses — the money doesn’t come in until about a month after renovations are finished.

“If businesses are struggling with coming up with this kind of money, it’s difficult,” Solomon said. “They’re trying to stay afloat, so other things come to mind first.”

Peirce said such businesses may be able to use Neighborhood Revitalization  funds to help with start-up costs for projects in the future.

With the light rail and millions of dollars in investment in the West Bank area in the works, Peirce said she hopes the program continues to grow.

“We hope over the next year and half we can get every business to make some type of improvement with the grant,” she said.

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