Having grown up on Lake Street in South Minneapolis, Chris Montana was able to see the corridor transform from virtually nothing into the vibrant cultural district that it’s become today.
“In the early ‘90s, that part of Lake Street wasn’t much to look at. There were a lot of abandoned buildings, and a lot of entrepreneurs of color came in and turned it around,” he said.
Montana is now one of those entrepreneurs who has brought change to the corridor as the owner and founder of Du Nord Social Spirits, a distillery located on Lake and East 32nd Street and the first Black-owned distillery in the nation. He founded the business nine years ago and in the spring of 2020 nearly lost it all.
Montana’s distillery, like hundreds of other businesses along Lake Street, was damaged by the civil uprising that occurred in the days following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. Overall, the Twin Cities area incurred more than half a billion dollars in damages that summer. The cost was enough to shutter many businesses that were already struggling to stay afloat.
“I know how many things had to go right to create the Lake Street corridor that we have, and to lose it in the span of a uple of days is heartbreaking,” Montana said of the arson and looting that took place during the uprising.
“Because we’re usually undercapitalized, we don’t have a lot of margin for error. It only takes a couple of things going wrong for us to go out of business,” he added.
Hundreds of small businesses owners found themselves in need of millions of dollars in repairs at the onset of a global pandemic. The situation called for massive fundraising and advocacy that individual business owners could not bear on their own.
Lake Street Council channels funds
Allison Sharkey is the executive director of the Lake Street Council (LSC), a nonprofit organization that caters to the business community along Lake Street. After witnessing the damage take place, Sharkey knew that her organization would have a role to play in helping the business owners rebuild after the uprising.
“In 2020, after everything happened in May and June the day after the first fires happened on Lake Street, we thought, ‘Oh, wow, there’s going to be a need for direct support for businesses to recover,’” she recalled.
The council jumped into action and created a campaign titled “We Love Lake Street” to raise funding for businesses along the corridor hit by the uprising. They raised more than $12 million from over 80,000 donors. That money went to the immediate relief of business owners on Lake Street, some of whom had lost everything.
After the Trump administration denied Minnesota’s request for disaster relief, people turned to local organizations like the LSC for assistance. “It felt like our community was really unprepared for this and that it was up to the grassroots organizations on the ground to step in and provide support. That was pretty shocking to me,” Sharkey said.
She credits the organization’s deep community ties in the community to how it was able to connect with hundreds of business owners and divvy up millions of dollars to them so quickly.
The LSC announced its We Love Lake Street Acquisition and Predevelopment Funds last month, which have already been awarded to 20 business owners and nonprofit organizations “to help them rebuild and invest in property on Lake Street.” A total of $710,000 in funding and $600,000 in predevelopment funding have been distributed so far.
“Our current program does forgivable loans up to $100,000, so if someone is ready to buy we can provide up to 10% of the purchase price with a cap of $100,000,” Sharkey said. The predevelopment fund goes up to $50,000 for each recipient and helps them with things such as environmental testing and architecture services.
One business that was awarded that funding was MIGIZI, a nonprofit organization that provides cultural and academic support to American Indian students in the Twin Cities with job training for media and environmental careers.
Kelly Drummer is the current president of MIGIZI, which is now located on 1845 E. Lake Street after losing their former building located on 27th and Lake to a fire. “Since the fire, they have supported us tremendously,” Drummer said of the LSC.
Drummer and others were asked to be a part of a leadership team to share their perspectives on what direction they’d like to see Lake Street go in during this time of change. “When Allison pulled together a group of us that had different types of businesses and worked along Lake Street, it was really important to get feedback from all of the businesses on what was happening and their challenges,” she said.
Montana’s business is also one of the recipients of the award. He shared that the LSC had been an impactful player in helping restore businesses like his to an operational level.
“I had some interaction with them. Truthfully, as a small business owner you spend most of your time just trying to survive,” he said. “That’s where groups like the Lake Street Council come in, because they could be a lightning rod for all the energy that wanted to pour into the area.”
Next phase: sustainability and ownership
The LSC is still accepting applications for both funds on a rolling basis but is shifting its focus towards finding ways to help entrepreneurs become landowners as a way of building wealth.
“One of the primary values that need to come out of the rebuild is a wealth-building opportunity, because just for so long the majority of small businesses that we work with have been hanging by the skin of their teeth,” Sharkey said.
Although Drummer has gained funding support for her organization to have a location, support for operating costs is still down. Her organization was unable to bring on dozens of youth this spring for the seasonal jobs that MIGIZI provides American Indian Youth. She stated that she’d like to see the state’s foundations go further beyond the initial areas of support and get businesses what they need.
“The lack of foundation support has been pretty prevalent,” she said. “I think they’ve invested a lot in process and conversation but the actual need of businesses and organizations has not been there.”
Corporations have also played a role in the rebuilding efforts along Lake Street. Some even reached out to provide support for the redevelopment process, but smaller firms owned by people of color stepped up in their place.
“Local architects collectively said, ‘That’s nice,’ but this is also a really great opportunity for architects of color to do good work on these groundbreaking projects,” Sharkey noted. Mixed residential and housing properties have come up in discussions around how Lake Street properties can become more affordable for community members to own.
Projects like Seward Redesign’s Colosseum restoration on 27th and Lake and the utilization of the large parking lot spaces along the corridor for affordable housing units are just some ways ownership is factoring into plans.
While hopeful of the change to come, Montana wants community members on Lake Street and throughout the entire Twin Cities to know that this is a continuing conversation that can’t end with Lake Street.
“Let’s not get into this space where we think if we solve Lake Street that we solve disparities, we solve the wealth gap. I’d love for that to be true, but that’s not the case,” he said. “A couple hundred businesses are critical for a cultural district, but they are not the Twin Cities.”
Abdi Mohamed is a contributing writer at the MN Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at email@example.com.