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Minneapolis businesses are recovering from the 2020 riots, but years of work remain

By Dee DePass, Star Tribune
Published: May 20, 2024, 6:00am

MINNEAPOLIS — Last month Ruhel Islam watched a wrecking crew demolish the O’Reilly Auto Parts Store on Lake Street in Minneapolis that rioters had destroyed in May 2020.

After four years, the blighted building was finally coming down to make way for a new $12 million Latino community center. It should have been happy news.

But the scene unleashed terrible memories for Islam.

During the riots following the police murder of George Floyd, the Bangladeshi entrepreneur had to flee his Gandhi Mahal Restaurant, two blocks from the O’Reilly site. Arsonists had set fires that burned down half the block — including his thriving business, which for 12 years served as a neighborhood hub.

Islam lost $1.1 million. He has since moved to a small, temporary spot nearby, but has struggled to make it there while raising money so he can return to his beloved Lake Street.

“It’s traumatic,” said Islam, who wants to rebuild and reimagine what’s on the land he still owns at 27th and Lake. While he has raised nearly $1 million, he needs at least $5 million more.

Islam’s now-empty lot and the demolished O’Reilly store stand as the tale of two Lake Streets. One recovering. The other, frozen, as owners try to figure out what’s next.

“The first phase of rebuilding on Lake Street is done. We have got some really impressive rebuilding projects from the ground up that have happened. But we do really have a long way to go,” said Lake Street Council Executive Director Allison Sharkey. “The level of funds we have been able to secure as a community is just a fraction of what the [need is].”

This summer, an additional $120 million worth of building improvements are expected to hit the street.

The civil unrest of 2020 resulted in $500 million in damage to 1,500 buildings on and around Lake Street, Uptown, West Broadway and University Avenue in Minneapolis and St. Paul. At the time, it was the second costliest civil disturbance in U.S. history, after the Los Angeles riots of 1992, according to insurance estimates.

While there’s restoration progress in all the neighborhoods, stakeholders estimate it still could take years and $250 million in donations, grants, loans and construction to fully restore Lake Street, said Russ Adams, manager of corridor recovery initiatives for the Lake Street Council. Small businesses that were mostly underinsured needed the most outside help.

So far, an estimated $100 million in mostly private donations and millions more in insurance funds have gone into rebuilding Lake Street — a bustling multicultural corridor that stretches from Uptown in Minneapolis to the Mississippi River in St. Paul.

In the last four years, it’s been a hotbed of reconstruction, with promises of more to come. The historic Coliseum Building is close to reopening after a $29 million rehab. The Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center rebuilding project is also nearly done. Midtown Global Market has completed the first phase of its rehab. And the new Abyssinia Cultural Center at 4th and Lake just opened a first-floor clinic and a third-floor ballroom.

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The Lake Street Council has provided grants for 40 murals to beautify the commercial corridor and discourage graffiti. Business owners must remove graffiti at their own expense or risk fines from the city. The mural project not only provides income for Twin Cities artists, it helps the community reknit the many bonds broken by the riots’ destruction, the council said. Art is just one slice of the healing process.

The council has raised $12 million and spent $11.25 million of it so far on painting murals, getting 500 small businesses back open and fixing 200 busted store fronts on the street.

The Minneapolis Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Mortenson Construction, Cargill and others have spent $7 million helping 98 Lake Street business owners as part of the Restore-Rebuild-Reimagine Fund.

The state’s Main Street Fund kicked in $9.2 million, which helped 25 businesses and nonprofits relocate, repair or expand their shops; pay predevelopment costs, or add workers after the riots.

Hennepin County contributed to more than $30 million in improvements.

Meanwhile, the city of Minneapolis spent $8.9 million on four affordable housing projects and injected $3.5 million in commercial property development funds into the Coliseum project, Elite Cleaners, Blue Horn Properties and Wrectangle Pizza in the Lyn-Lake area. The city also sprinkled $160,000 in tiny forgivable loans to 17 businesses, said city spokeswoman Greta Bergstrom.

Even so, roughly a dozen buildings demolished after the 2020 mayhem remain empty lots. Dozens of other structures, like O’Reilly and the nearby Third Precinct police station have sat scarred and boarded up, waiting for a renewal that some are not sure will ever come.

“A lot has been done, and a lot still needs to be done,” said Kelly Drummer, president of Migizi, which supports Native American youth. Migizi burned after someone set fire to the post office and Odd Fellows building next door. It was a total loss.

Migizi’s building was insured. But the insurance check went to pay off the mortgage. Officials sold the land to pay off taxes and then successfully raised $6 million to buy, renovate and expand the Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly building eight blocks west at 1845 Lake St.

Migizi reopened in the new location in October. The resurrection helps, but Drummer’s heart still hurts. She and her husband miss their old neighbors at 27th and Lake. They and Ruhel Islam were the last to leave their buildings as smoke and fire enclosed them.

Four years later, their old block remains a barren jumble of weeds, like many lots along Lake Street where businesses once thrived.

Walking by the field where his Gandhi Mahal Restaurant used to stand, Islam looks at his empty lot and envisions rebuilding — not just his restaurant but a multitenant community hub with room for a bazaar, indoor farmers market and gathering spot.

It would take $5 million to $10 million, Islam said. It seems a lofty goal. If a new Gandhi Mahal doesn’t break ground in a year, his existing $1 million in commitments disappear.

He’s losing money at the Franklin Avenue takeout spot, which is half the size of his former Lake Street kitchen. The lease will expire soon, so he’s pouring his energy into coming back strong on Lake Street.

“There is hope the community is still there for us,” said Islam, who left town last week to talk to potential investors. “This is something we built together over 12 and 15 years. This is our livelihood.”

Islam’s story is replicated up and down the street, Drummer said. The big corporations — Cub Foods, Target, Advance Auto Parts — had the financial heft to reopen after looters and vandals destroyed stores. Nonprofits like Migizi, and many of the damaged health centers along the street, won foundation support and government grants.

“It’s the small business owners like Ruhel who are really challenged. Foundations don’t fund them. They are expected to get investors,” Drummer said. “It’s a challenge. I don’t know if it would be possible to come back unless you have a significant investor.”

But Sharkey insists Lake Street businesses are coming back.

Not only will the Coliseum open as a hub for small businesses owned by people of color in June, but the nonprofit group COPAL, or Communidades Organizando el Poder y la Acción Latina, plans to build on the O’Reilly land at 29th and Lake after purchasing it with help from grants from the state, the Minneapolis Foundation and the Lake Street Council.

“I am really thrilled,” said Sharkey on the day the excavator arrived to make quick work of the graffiti-covered O’Reilly store. “Just the fact that the blight is now going to be removed is great for the neighborhood. What is also exciting is that this property will now be owned by folks right here in our community.”

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