A beautiful new Estes Funeral Chapel is about to have its formal opening on the corner of Penn and Plymouth avenues in north Minneapolis, the third home of a small business founded nearby in the early 1960s.

It’s a long story how the new building came together. But maybe the main thing to take away is how a small business can become such a pillar of a town or community that people will pitch in to help keep it viable even when there’s little in it for them.

April Estes, the owner, hoped to keep the chapel going after her husband, company founder Richard Estes, passed away in 2013. Neighbors even approached her in the grocery store to ask about it, she said, as the only funeral chapel in the city owned by an African-American family.

But she hadn’t been involved in her late husband’s business and didn’t know what to do with it. So, she said, “I was thinking about letting it go.”

As she tells the story, she talked through her problem with a group of her friends including Minneapolis community volunteer Sharon Ryan. They decided Sharon’s husband, Bob Ryan, could help.

Bob Ryan had plenty of business skill and experience, all right, working as chief financial officer of Medtronic until 2005 before retiring and continuing to serve on boards of directors of companies including Citigroup and General Mills. Yet he didn’t know the funeral services market, he said, or even much about the neighborhoods Estes served in north Minneapolis.

“When I started working with the business, I kind of learned as I went along, and I didn’t know if the business was going to make it,” Ryan said. “There were so many things that needed to be done. Financial systems, financial reporting. … There was a whole segment of the market they had lost. But I was just really impressed with the staff, how hard they worked and how dedicated they were in serving the community.”

Richard Estes had led the business for decades, establishing a tradition of making sure every family was served. When families showed up with no money for a funeral, he helped them any way he could, maybe showing them how to apply for assistance for part of the cost or offering a payment plan.

He was active in civic life, too. As gang violence swelled in the 1990s, for instance, he would bring young men into the chapel for some straight talk about gun violence and death.

In summarizing what had gone wrong after Richard Estes grew ill and died, Ryan said simply, “the business had been neglected.”

One solution was establishing April Estes’ nephew Tracy Wesley, a mortician who had long worked with his uncle Richard, as the leader of the business. Ryan also turned to his own network for help, including auditors from his days at Medtronic. Eventually the funeral chapel, with the help of the Lurie LLP accounting firm, adopted a set of online accounting and financial management tools to bring order to its finances.

Ryan also asked for the help of Zach Olson, Steven Kaplan and other lawyers of the Fredrickson & Byron law firm, which has done volunteer legal work in north Minneapolis and quickly decided that by helping Estes, it really was helping the community.

“The city and the county decided this as well,” Kaplan said. “It never occurred to us, given what we knew, to not do it pro bono.”

The support from the city and Hennepin County came in an unusual way, though, through a complex relocation of the business that led to the new facility.

Bob Ryan had already concluded that a tired facility was part of the problem, one seeming explanation for why the funeral chapel had lost the business of families with the means to use more upscale providers.

After a brief tour of the old building this month, it seemed better to call it out of fashion or obsolete rather than rundown, with low ceilings and tight interior spaces that reflect its 1980s construction. But financing a new chapel was yet another challenge.

“No bank would have actually done this deal,” Ryan said, seated with Wesley in the new building. “Banks would want somebody who’s got great financial records, which we didn’t have. They want a long history of earnings and cash flow, which we didn’t have.”

On the other hand, the old chapel sat on a valuable corner lot across the alley from a big neighbor that needed to expand, the NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center of Hennepin County. The county had long eyed an expansion, including possibly spilling across the alley and onto the Estes site. So a win-win deal emerged.

To clear the way to expand NorthPoint, the county would take over land owned by the city across the street from the old Estes Chapel and build the shell of a new building there. It was to be precisely the same size. Estes eventually financed the rest of the new project with the help of the nonprofit Metropolitan Economic Development Association, known as Meda.

The architects, Collaborative Design Group of Minneapolis along with Jamil Ford of Mobilize Design & Architecture, understood their assignment as creating a building that wouldn’t look like a traditional funeral home, as Ford described it.

It sure is different from the old place, built around a chapel nearly two stories tall with natural light spilling in at the top. They wanted an open-to-the-community feel, too, Ford said, so they included things like windows along Penn Avenue so commuters awaiting a bus could look in and enjoy a wall of visual art.

Ford also noted that he often sees makeshift memorials pop up for the recently deceased in North Side neighborhoods. So families seemed to really need another feature of the new Estes site, a small garden in which to gather, mourn and remember.

April Estes was thrilled the Estes chapel would start a new chapter in its history of service in Minneapolis.

As a recent phone call was starting to wrap up, she wanted to get across one more thought: “This chapel is for everybody, not just African-Americans in north Minneapolis,” she said. “Any and everybody is welcome.”

 

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302