When Tammy Tanaka-Johnson and Erika Olson Gross moved their Kingfield toy store, Kinoko Kids, across the street into the old Sugar Sugar space this past spring, they needed to replace the former candy store’s awning.
The pair also wanted to improve their business’ visibility, after having limited exterior signage at the old location.
“We saw it as a great opportunity to finally have an awning,” Olson Gross said.
Before reopening in March, and with the permission of their new landlord, Olson Gross and Tanaka-Johnson swapped out the Sugar Sugar awning with one featuring their business’s name. The changeover cost $1,500, but the duo paid just $1,000, thanks to a city matching-grant program that partially reimburses business owners for exterior improvements.
Kinoko Kids, located at 38th & Grand, is one of dozens of Southwest businesses and one of hundreds citywide that has made exterior improvements with the help of the Facade Improvement Matching Grant Program.
Over the past 11 years, the city has awarded 71 grants totaling $120,361 to businesses and landlords at 38th & Grand and 38th & Nicollet. About three quarters of those funds have gone to 38th & Nicollet.
Citywide, nearly $2.7 million has been distributed toward 960 projects between the program’s inception in 2008 and June 30, 2019, according to the Community Planning and Economic Development department, which runs the program. Those projects have been matched by $6.58 million in private funds.
City staff and political leaders said the facade-improvement program helps create welcoming business districts with shops that have similar-looking exteriors. They added that it gives business owners an incentive to make repairs and improvements they might otherwise forgo.
“Generally, your last concern [as a small business owner] is how my building looks on the outside,” Ward 8 City Council Member Andrea Jenkins said. “It tends to fall low on the priority list.”
Minneapolis developed the facade-improvement program during the Great Recession as part of a broader initiative, called Great Streets, to help neighborhood business districts. The program is open to owners and tenants of commercial buildings in 91 commercial areas across the city and is administered by 15 local business and neighborhood organizations. Building tenants must have landlord approval to participate.
Grants can generally run up to $5,000, though businesses in some areas can receive up to $7,500. All grants must be matched with private funds, either on a 1-to-1 or 2-to-1 basis, depending on the business’s location. Eligible projects include new awnings, window replacements, masonry repairs and murals. Projects such as interior work, new construction and fencing are not eligible. Business and building owners must complete and pay for the projects before receiving city funds.
There are five organizations that administer the program in Southwest Minneapolis, including the Lake Street Council and the Southwest Business Association. The SBA, which covers about half of Southwest Minneapolis, including parts of Lyndale and Nicollet avenues, has provided over $530,000 to 301 projects since 2008, facade grants manager Roger Worm said.
Worm pointed to 38th & Nicollet, a commercial district in which businesses have received over $91,000 in facade-improvement grants, as an example of how the program has had a positive impact on neighborhoods.
Since 2008, a handful of new restaurants and businesses have opened at the corner, including Nighthawks Diner and Bar, Kyatchi and Boludo, he noted, and almost every commercial space in the district is occupied.
“As I tell the city, if you want to stand on the corner and declare success, this is the corner,” Worm said.
At 38th & Grand, about 24 projects have received grant funding since 2011, including seven this year. Almost all of this year’s grantees at the corner have either opened or moved there in the past couple years.
Ja’Lisa Calaway, who opened Ja’Lisa’s Gorgeous Extensions at the corner in 2017, is planning to use a grant to help pay for a new awning. She said the new awning will be at a steeper angle than the current one, increasing its visibility from the street.
To Calaway’s north, Katie Koster of the shop digs is using a grant to help cover a new mural on her north facade, a blank red wall facing 38th Street. Work on the mural started Oct. 2.
A few storefronts east, Crystal Zavada of the consignment boutique belle weather recently installed new windows and signage after moving the shop to 38th & Grand from 34th & Lyndale earlier this year. The projects cost north of $3,000, but Zavada paid about a third of that, thanks to a grant and a contribution toward the windows from her landlord.
Zavada said she wouldn’t have been able to afford the new features without the grant.
Jenkins, who represents the area, said the program has been a good investment, both in terms of building goodwill and improving neighborhood business districts. She noted that Mayor Jacob Frey has proposed allocating an additional $200,000 to the program in 2020, specifically to be used in the city’s six new “cultural districts.” The districts are commercial areas in neighborhoods where
the majority of residents are people of color. (It’s unlikely that any will extend west of Interstate 35W or south of Interstate 394.)
Statistical research on the economic return of facade-improvement programs is scarce, but a 2014 University of Wisconsin–Extension study found that, in general, many business operators experience an increase in sales as a result of storefront-improvement projects. The study noted that even small investments can generate significant returns and that nearby businesses often experience increased sales and initiate their own storefront improvements when their neighbors complete projects.
Jenkins said small businesses like the ones at 38th & Grand help keep communities relevant and can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating the need for longer car trips.
“[They] help create a more comprehensive community,” she said, “a feeling of community and connectivity that helps keep communities strong.”