Façade grant sparks change on West Bank

The city will match every dollar a business spends to improve its look.

Amanda Bankston

Ashanti Austin is a firm believer that itâÄôs whatâÄôs on the inside that counts âÄî but that doesnâÄôt mean the outside doesnâÄôt matter.

While her neighbors at Midwest Mountaineering  sport a uniform âÄúathleticâÄù 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 âÄúnothing specialâÄù 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.

âÄúWe struggle with looking different from Midwest Mountaineering,âÄù she said. âÄúWe spend more time and money on quality customer service because thatâÄôs what our focus is âÄî relationships.âÄù

Despite AustinâÄôs 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 MinneapolisâÄô 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 programâÄôs 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.

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

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.

âÄúWe want to improve the look of the store,âÄù she said. âÄúBut we have to make mandatory repairs first.âÄù

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 âÄúpreserving the value of the building.âÄù

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.

âÄúOverall, it improves the neighborhood, which takes a lot,âÄù she said. âÄúBusinesses are very appreciative that [the program] is there.âÄù

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.

âÄúThe look of an area can make it a safer place,âÄù said Solomon, chairman of the West Bank Safety Committee. âÄúMore lights, more attractive buildings âÄî all of these things are effective at deterring crime.âÄù

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 couldnâÄôt 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.

âÄúYou wonâÄôt see immigrant-owned businesses as success stories,âÄù Austin said. âÄúThe most at-risk businesses are still hanging on by a thread.âÄù

Similarly, Peirce said footing the entire bill for a renovation can be a challenge for many new businesses âÄî the money doesnâÄôt come in until about a month after renovations are finished.

âÄúIf businesses are struggling with coming up with this kind of money, itâÄôs difficult,âÄù Solomon said. âÄúTheyâÄôre trying to stay afloat, so other things come to mind first.âÄù

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.

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