While Shalawn Randall was growing up in Minneapolis, she dreamt of having a business downtown. “It’s where my friends and I hung out. It’s home. You always feel safe at home,” said Randall at her tent at the Taste of Minnesota earlier this year.
In late 2021, she realized those dreams when she opened B’Youtique, a women’s clothing store, on the skyway level in the Baker Center. She had help from a Minneapolis Downtown Council program that is trying to fill downtown retail spaces left vacant as corporate chains flee and nine-to-five office workers hesitate to return.
The neighborhoods encompassing downtown Minneapolis have 450 retail shops today, down from the 550 retail stores comprising six-million-square-feet of space that existed in 1972— a drastic decline. Four of those stores that existed in 1972—Dayton’s, Donaldson’s, JC Penney and Powers—comprised 1.9 million-square-feet of retail space.
Those stores all closed during the past 50 years, and the last major retailer to leave downtown was Macy’s in 2017. The last clothing chain in downtown Minneapolis, Marshalls, closed in January of this year.
Some of the spaces remain vacant because they’re too big, thus impractical for small businesses to use. “The question of scale is something that downtowns all over the country are working through, and it will take partnerships between property owners, the city, and organizations like ours to solve,” said Shannon Fitzgerald, director of partnerships at the Minneapolis Downtown Council.
In 2018, the Minneapolis Downtown Council started a program called the Chameleon Shoppes to transform vacant retail spaces into “equity opportunities for BIPOC- and women-owned businesses,” according to Fitzgerald. “We’re passionate about opening up business opportunities that may not have been possible before. We’re thrilled to be a part of an evolving downtown that evokes inclusive interest, attraction, and pride.”
The program, which is supported by a grant and is partially city-funded, currently supports seven businesses. Five of the seven businesses are Black-owned. A sixth, FX Minnesota, is Hispanic-owned, while a seventh, Coconut Whisk, is partly Asian-owned. The spaces they inhabit are made available through relationships the Downtown Council has with property owners.
One of those businesses is the Strive Bookstore, located inside the Young-Quinlan building on Nicollet Mall. The bookstore opened in June. “Because of my relationship with the Downtown Council, I was recommended to be the bookstore in this space. And I just couldn’t pass up that opportunity,” said bookstore owner Mary Taris.
Taris, a bookworm, never saw herself opening a bookstore. She did, however, want to start a publishing company because she struggled to find books that included students of color. “So after 15 years of teaching and having to find extra books and resources on my own time and on my own dime, I just decided that I had to do something more,” said Taris one rainy October day in her sprawling bookstore.
Taris ended up starting a publishing company and published 10 books, which included memoirs and guides on how to handle microaggressions. She eventually realized she could have more of an impact by opening a bookstore. “I could get more books into the hands of our children and connect across cultures,” added Taris.
She loves having a bookstore downtown, in part because she meets people from various places and walks of life. “We meet people from all over the world here because we’re so close to the convention center. And whenever there are conventions in town, people like to find the local bookstore,” said Taris.
The Chameleon Shoppes program may expand next year to support more entrepreneurs. Mayor Jacob Frey is recommending investing $750,000 into next year’s budget so the Downtown Council can expand the program and fill more vacant retail spaces. The Minneapolis City Council will vote on adopting the budget on December 5.
The boost in funding may allow the Downtown Council to consider expanding its program to other parts of downtown. “If it makes sense for the program to grow beyond Nicollet, we will pursue that,” said Fitzgerald.
Meanwhile, other Black entrepreneurs are setting up shop elsewhere downtown of their own volition. Nestled on the ground floor of an apartment building at the corner of 14th and Park is Lutunji’s Palate, which opened in May 2022.
The owner, Lutunji Abram, was looking for a place to have a commercial kitchen and was considering opening in the Northeast until a broker showed her the Elliot Park location while it was still under construction. “This warm feeling came over me. This will be the space, primarily my own commercial kitchen. But I said, well, why not take a chance at retail,” said Abram.
The corner doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic, even though the neighborhood is surrounded by apartments that house a diverse array of residents, from students to the working class to those in recovery. One block away, people park their cars in lots to go work at nearby Hennepin County Medical Center or to attend games at nearby U.S. Bank Stadium. Perhaps detracting from the sidewalk experience, thousands of people drive along the streets just outside Lutunji’s to get downtown and nearby freeways at a fast clip.
The low foot traffic doesn’t concern Abram, a former MSR intern who says she has a successful wholesale business with products stocked at the shelves of area grocery stores such as Cub Foods, Lunds & Byerlys, and Hy-Vee. Still, she is working to bring people to her corner.
Every second Tuesday evening of the month, Abram hosts open mic events. She also allows aspiring chefs to use her kitchen to prepare food for pop-ups every now and then, including a seafood boil over the summer. She also hosts cooking classes.
Over the summer, she organized a street festival with the Elliot Park Neighborhood, Inc., the local neighborhood association that she serves as a board member. The festival, which closed off 14th Street between Grant Street and Park Avenue, hosted local entrepreneurs and performers performing music and spoken word, as well as people who devoured hamburgers and Abram’s peach cobbler cups.
Though the crowds didn’t rival those of Taste of Minnesota, Abram noticed something: “They stayed. They lingered. And they even came inside [to my store] because a couple people wanted iced coffees.”
Though the Chameleon Shoppes program is not opening new stores at this time, the Downtown Council invites aspiring entrepreneurs interested in participating to complete an application online at www.mplsdowntown.com/chameleon/general-vendor-application. Learn more about Lutunji’s Palate and stay updated on upcoming events at www.facebook.com/Lutunjispalate.