St. Anthony: They're leading a Lowry Avenue renaissance

The small merchants at Penn and Lowry on the North Side are giving the commercial hub new vibrancy and a welcome economic boost.

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Darryl Weivoda

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Connie Beckers, "the Goddess of Glass," has set daily sales records this spring at her shop at Penn and Lowry Avenues N.

Beckers, a North Side native and artist, opened the small shop in 2010 after years of teaching, creating and selling out of her nearby house. "I'm shooting for a 30 percent increase in sales in 2012," said Beckers, who also sells on consignment the work of other area artists.

It's another vote of confidence in the piecemeal rebound of a commercial hub that seven years ago was best known for vacant buildings and a double homicide.

Commerce and art drive traffic and trump neighborhood crime.

The small merchants at Penn and Lowry also surmounted the real estate implosion, a recession and the 2011 tornado that cut a wide swath through the North Side.

In fact, Darryl Weivoda, who has owned or worked at North End Hardware since he was teenager in the 1970s, said his neighborhood stalwart is headed for its best year. And the neighborhood business association he reinvigorated has nearly 20 members, the most since the late 1960s.

Just think, in a community where the Minnesota Vikings, the Mall of America and Southdale in Edina get public subsidies to build, a small developer and a band of scrappy entrepreneurs are driving jobs and helping turn around a frayed-edged neighborhood on their own dime and elbow grease.

"My customers expect me or my employees to be here when they put their clothes in and go to the grocery store or hardware store," said Shantae Holmes, a North Side native and proprietor of All Washed Up, a two-year-old laundry in the Penn-Lowry Crossings development. "It shows they trust us.

Weivoda, who bought and renovated an abandoned building next door to North End, also is the owner of the Lowry Cafe, a beautiful renovation that boasts good food and spacious booths. Weivoda, a handy guy, led the $250,000 renovation. He financed it by mortgaging his house.

Already, the Lowry Cafe is approaching the break-even point, Weivoda said.

Just as importantly, the eatery is helping drive traffic to the other merchants. "Our walk-in business is building slowly," said Holmes, who opened All Washed Up in 2010. "I've also got a big commercial account now that gives me some security. It's getting easier to pay my bills."

To be sure, this is not the Galleria.

After five years of watching the gritty comeback of this North Side hub, it's appropriate to tip our hat to a corner where more than $10 million in private dollars has been invested, dozens of jobs created and which is providing essential services, art and food to a neighborhood where property values are slowly rising.

"We still have a couple small vacancies, but we'll get there," said Steve Wellington, the veteran developer who opened Penn-Lowry Crossing, an $8 million privately financed shopping center, including an Aldi supermarket and Family Dollar Store, just as the recession broke in 2008. "I'm a firm believer that you can successfully develop high-quality retail in core-city areas without public subsidy if you do it correctly."

Beckers, who employs five at the Goddess of Glass, said her best days are Sundays, when people from all over dine at the Lowry and wander next door to her place. Her Facebook page, which recently won a "cash mob" promotion driven by Goddess supporters, also has driven traffic.

"Studies show that people want to park their car and take care of two or three things," Beckers said. "They can do that again on Penn and Lowry."

Stephanie Gruver, a Re/Max Results realty agent who sells city and suburbs, said she's having newfound success selling the neighborhood.

"The revitalizing commercial district really helps," Gruver said. "To get a successful neighborhood, we know you need a successful, nearby business district."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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