It’s been more than three years since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the civil unrest that followed. Now several Black entrepreneurs aim to bring business owners of color back to a hard-hit part of the city.
They’re revitalizing an historic retail building that was nearly lost to arson, with the hope that their success will encourage others to follow suit.
In the days after a white policeman kneeled on George Floyd’s neck, killing the 46-year-old Black man, protests and civil disobedience gave way to three nights of rioting.
Buildings along the commercial corridor of Lake Street, including the Third Precinct police station where former officer Derek Chauvin worked, were the arsonists’ first targets. While they reduced many buildings to rubble, one century-old landmark still stands.
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Taylor Smrikárova, real estate development director with the Minneapolis nonprofit Redesign Inc., is among several Black entrepreneurs who saved the Coliseum Building from the wrecking ball.
“Its location on Lake in proximity to all the activity in 2020 and the size of the building meant the opportunity to come back and reclaim it and fill it with new uses just could not be missed,” Smrikárova said during a recent tour of the project site.
Inside, the smell of soot and mold is fading as workers clean up debris, repair extensive smoke and water damage, and replace melted metal window frames.
Built in 1917 to house Freeman’s Department store, the building originally included a ballroom on its third floor. Its most recent tenants included a Denny’s restaurant, a health clinic and a law office.
Janice Downing, an investor in the project, plans to move her management consultancy to the second floor once renovations are finished. Downing said the project’s overall purpose is to provide affordable retail, office, and restaurant space to business owners of color and Indigenous entrepreneurs who were forced out of the neighborhood.
“This can be the place where people come and hang out, meet, work, gather,” Downing said. “It is a place where people can say that didn’t get taken away. It’s restored, and it’s ours.”
While Target, Cub Foods and other deep-pocketed chain retailers on Lake Street bounced back quickly, many small businesses left altogether.
Mama Safia’s, a Somali-American restaurant, is moving back to the Coliseum Building’s ground floor after three years in temporary space it leased with the help of a crowdfunding campaign. Its neighbor will be Du Nord Social Spirits, a Minneapolis-based Black-owned distillery. Other tenants are expected to include a barber shop and a nail salon.
Downing said it was tricky to pull together the $29 million in financing for the project, in part because some lenders were skeptical that leasing out low-cost, move-in ready space to small businesses would prove financially viable.
Loans and grants are part of the funding mix, as are historic preservation tax credits. Last year the Coliseum Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Project architect Alicia Belton said that means they can’t simply gut the building and start over from scratch. They must save original details, including the terrazzo floors and marble staircases. Unlike in many renovations, exposed ductwork and pipes are not allowed, and ceilings may not be lowered to conceal mechanical systems.
“From an architectural standpoint, this is the most difficult project I’ve ever worked on,” Belton said. “Everything I thought I knew working with the historic tax credit rules has been really challenging. But I think that the end result will be beautiful.”
The women leading this project are finding that beauty in unexpected places, including a plaster wall that the fire sprinklers streaked with a pattern of soot.
While others may have painted it over, Smrikárova said that when the Coliseum Building reopens in 2024, that wall will remain as a permanent reminder of the latest chapter in the building’s history, one marked by the pain of violence and the promise of a new beginning.