In the Before Time, St. Paul’s Payne Avenue was on the upswing.
A diverse array of small businesses was filling vacant storefronts, drawing visitors from near and far and reinstilling a sense of vibrancy along and around the corridor, one of the capital city’s historic main streets.
Now, more than six months into the COVID-19 pandemic and with winter on the horizon, businesses that have contributed to the area’s renaissance are barely holding on. For a close-knit community that was seeing years of hard work pay off, it’s a heavy blow — but one business owners say they’re determined to weather.
“It was really on a great trajectory before all of this happened,” said Ryan Huseby, co-owner of Tongue in Cheek restaurant, which opened six years ago in a vacant spot at the corner of Payne and Jenks avenues. “The other business owners I talk to — you know, they’re not doing great, but they’re all optimistic about the future.”
Since St. Paul’s early days, Payne Avenue has been a commercial corridor in a neighborhood that has served as a landing place for waves of new immigrants, from Swedes and Italians to Hmong and Karen.
It’s also an area that’s poorer than St. Paul as a whole — 40% of households in Payne-Phalen earn less than $35,000 a year, compared with a third of households citywide, according to data from Minnesota Compass. As in communities across the United States, the pandemic has laid those inequities bare and made the future all the more tenuous.
In recent years, East Side residents, business owners and community organizers have tried to reshape Payne Avenue as an arts and culture hub after an economic decline tied to the loss of major industrial employers including Whirlpool, 3M and Hamm’s Brewery. The businesses cropping up now, both on Payne Avenue and in the surrounding area, are aiming to fill unmet needs — for places to eat, buy a record, get a cup of coffee, see and make art, or even learn to swing on a flying trapeze.
“In this modern time, [Payne Avenue is] important because it’s about as diverse as it gets,” said Stephan Kistler, who runs an art studio space in the Old Swedish Bank Building and is part of a group of community members seeking to turn the corridor into a cultural destination without gentrifying it. “There’s something there worth preserving, but also something worth re-energizing.”
These days, the preservation is visible in the old brick buildings that give Payne Avenue the feel of a small-town Main Street. Lessened now is the energy — though cars still speed by, foot traffic is sparse.
Because there isn’t official tracking of pandemic-related business closures on the East Side, it’s difficult to measure the effect that COVID-19 has had on Payne Avenue. Nine businesses along the corridor got emergency cash assistance through the St. Paul Bridge Fund, and at least 10 got loans through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) or the federal Paycheck Protection Program, records show.
Caydence Records and Coffee, on the corner of Payne and York avenues, got a visit last month from DEED Commissioner Steve Grove after getting a $22,000 Minnesota Small Business Emergency Loan. The combination coffee shop, record store and music venue opened in a formerly vacant building in 2016 and business was good until March, when the pandemic hit and Gov. Tim Walz ordered businesses to close.
“We definitely knew that if we want to keep our dream small business alive, we do not have deep enough pockets to sit and wait this out,” said co-owner Mat Graske.
Caydence laid off its 10 staff members and started selling curated selections of vinyl, CDs and cassettes, sometimes delivering them directly to customers’ doors. As of August, the coffee shop and retail staff are back, but “business has been wildly unpredictable,” Graske said. He hasn’t paid himself since the pandemic began, he said, and has been making ends meet with handyman work.
Abdi Ali and his sister, Ikram, weren’t expecting to get paid for the first two years after they opened Karibu Grocery and Deli — a countdown that was supposed to end in December.
“But ever since the pandemic hit, I guess we have to wait another year,” Abdi Ali said. Business has been slow, he said, and early on they opted to absorb rising meat prices rather than pass them on to their customers.
The story is the same for more established businesses. Karen Palm, who more than 20 years ago gutted a vacant building at the southern tip of Payne Avenue and opened the now-storied Minnesota Music Cafe, said she didn’t know whether her business would survive the March shutdown.
But one of the first things Palm did after closing — she’s since reopened at 50% capacity — was create a DVD featuring bands who play at the venue, as a fundraiser to support them.
“I couldn’t even sleep trying to put this together for these bands who play here once a month,” she said. “These people — they took a hard hit, too.”
A sense of altruism has cut through the panic for other businesses and organizations, too.
Caydence is working with a Minneapolis coffee shop on a local music compilation, the proceeds of which will go to charity, Graske said. Just off Payne in the former Hamm’s complex, 11 Wells Spirits focused on making hand sanitizer during the early part of the pandemic and provided it free to those who needed it, said business manager Nate Aalderks. Farther south, on E. 7th Street, the nonprofit Indigenous Roots distributed food after the riots this summer closed grocery stores, said co-founder Mary Anne Quiroz.
But as the pandemic drags on, there’s a fear that customers won’t be able to hold up their end.
“I think at the beginning, the support for small businesses was very high and people had disposable income,” said Anne DeJoy, executive director of the East Side Neighborhood Development Company. “But now people are worried about the future of that and needing to buckle down and really economize.”
Business owners say the Payne Avenue area, though busier than during the ghost town days of the spring shutdown, has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.
“Some of the spark has slowed — we’ll say it’s slowed, it’s not gone,” said Katie Kimball, who owns Twin Cities Trapeze Center. Kimball said her business has returned to where it was more than seven years ago, when she opened in the Hamm’s complex and had only a hospital linens company for a neighbor.
St. Paul Brewing was a welcome addition when it moved to the complex in 2014, Kimball said. But it was nearly a pandemic casualty — in June, the brewery’s owner gave it up and the management group behind Can Can Wonderland took over.
Rob Clapp, Can Can Wonderland’s co-founder, said the brewery’s patio has been well-received, and he’s hoping to extend outdoor dining as long as possible. But he’s scared.
“I’m a very optimistic person at my core, and it’s daunting,” Clapp said. “I think the thing that gets me through is if we can just figure out how to survive, this shall pass.”