Funds are extended to businesses affected by the fallout of pandemic.

Nineteen months after civil unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic laid waste to a portion of the commercial landscape in Saint Paul—and one year after the city approved $1 million in assistance for affected businesses—city officials are still trying to get the money out the door and into the hands of local businesses. The City Council, acting as Saint Paul’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) Board, has reallocated the $1 million to two different business relief programs.

Half of the money will be offered as matching grants to applicants for the $8.9 million in state funds available to businesses damaged in the civil unrest in May 2020 along University Avenue, Snelling Avenue, West Seventh Street and parts of the East Side. Guidelines for the funding program will be released by the city during the first quarter of 2022.

The HRA allocated the remaining $500,000 to the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to help small businesses owned by people of color that are at risk of losing their rented storefronts through the sale of the property. That money is available to businesses affected by the civil unrest or the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. It could be used by a nonprofit organization to purchase the property and hold it until the business tenant or tenants are able to buy it themselves.

Early in the afternoon of May 29, 2020, a firefighter doused shops that had been torched the night before on University Avenue just east of Snelling Avenue.. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“The intent was to provide immediate assistance to businesses,” said City Council member Rebecca Noecker of Ward 2. “I’m just wondering why it’s taken so long to get the dollars allocated.”

City Council member Mitra Jalali said there are several businesses in her Ward 4 that are worried about gentrification and the sale of their rented storefronts pushing them out. LISC’s Community Asset Transition Fund has already helped several business owners in Minneapolis retain their storefronts.

The total $1 million in unspent funds was originally allocated in December 2020 as part of the HRA’s 2021 budget. City Council members asked city staff why the money was not awarded to businesses this year, when other relief efforts tied to the civil unrest and pandemic were able to reach their intended businesses. They wondered whether there were any businesses still around seeking relief.

“The intent was to provide immediate assistance to businesses,” said Ward 2 City Council member Rebecca Noecker. “We allocated these funds some time ago and the idea was to help businesses that were really struggling. I’m just wondering why it’s taken so long to get the dollars allocated.”

City and state relief funds can be paired

“It took longer than we would’ve liked,” said Andy Hestness, the city’s HRA program director. According to him, Mayor Melvin Carter’s administration was waiting for the Minnesota Legislature to act on similar civil unrest and pandemic funding.

The state Legislature approved a package of financial assistance last spring for businesses affected by the civil unrest or pandemic. Governor Tim Walz signed the legislation in June. The first round of grants from the Minnesota Main Street Economic Revitalization Program were awarded in October. That round included $8.9 million for affected businesses in three districts of Saint Paul.

The three districts extend a quarter mile on either side of University Avenue from Fairview Avenue to Rice Street, Snelling Avenue from Portland to Englewood avenues, and West Seventh Street from I-35E to Kellogg Boulevard. They also include parts of the East Side.

The state funds were set aside for businesses affected by civil unrest, natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic, major plant closures, significant increases in commercial vacancies or the loss of anchor institutions. The city funds can be used to match the state funds, according to Hestness, or they can be used by themselves in other parts of the city.

Eligible expenses include repair or renovation of property, demolition, predesign and design work, site preparation, engineering, construction, landscaping, infrastructure and related amenities.

— Jane McClure

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