The biggest investment in decades is coming to the historic heart of south Minneapolis' black business district along E. 38th Street, seeding projects as large as a multimillion-dollar grocery store and as small as a bike center aimed at helping to overcome the racial gap in cycling.

The growth spurt is due in part to residents, business owners and nonprofit leaders working to identify projects that would revitalize an area that was once crowded with small businesses, and along the way make the neighborhood pedestrian and bike friendly, create some jobs — and stave off gentrification.

City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden has helped to focus those stakeholders in recent months with a series of workshops devoted to the future of 38th between Nicollet and Chicago avenues. She wanted a venue where disparate community leaders could share information. "You see properties being purchased and you think you better start planning," she said.

Until now, the area's biggest developments were the Urban League's service center, built in 2003, and the opening of a city fire station in 1992.

That's all going to change.

There's the small-scale, like Anthony Taylor's recent purchase of a lot with a chalet-style building just off Interstate 35W. The building first housed a filling station in the 1930s, but Taylor plans to turn it into a bike center. His larger mission counts on help from a local black-oriented cycling club that he co-founded to provide training and rides to try to overcome a wide racial gap in cycling participation.

Then there are the big investments. Seward Co-op is spending $15 million for a new grocery store across from Taylor's shop that will have the ability to transform the area with at least 100 jobs.

Kitty-corner from Taylor, Sabathani Community Center, a longtime bulwark of social services for the area, is laying groundwork for building senior housing on a back lot of the former school site it owns.

Two blocks east, Kente Circle, which outgrew Sabathani, also hopes to expand within two years. Owner Larry Tucker has purchased adjacent lots to accommodate its growth as a culturally specific mental health counseling business that needs space for its expanding roster of training workshops.

With Glidden, workshop participants identified commercial and housing opportunity sites, talked about improvements that would make the corridor friendlier to walk and bike, and brainstormed how to preserve the area's history. They also discussed such ideas as a co-op to pool locally focused investments or negotiating agreements to share the benefits of development with the community.

That activity is a far cry from the climate of the 1990s, when a study commissioned for the city's development agency suggested that in a post-streetcar era, many of the city's smaller, less-profitable business intersections lacked the retail space or the customer base to survive.

It wasn't always that way. In the 1950s, for example, the city directory shows the intersection of 38th and 4th crowded with small businesses selling gas, prescription drugs, furniture, shoes, radios and groceries, cutting or setting hair, cleaning clothes.

"When you looked at who owned those businesses, it was people from the community," said Cindy Booker, Sabathani's executive director.

But new entrepreneurs didn't follow them.

'I can bike'

Before the freeway, a gas station on E. 38th was a prime location. Later, it became an ice cream store. By the time Taylor bought the tiny building at 3rd Avenue S. with a service bay and attached office, the county valued the property at only $88,000.

"It's like this property is invisible," Glidden said. "It's been vacant for so long."

The 55-year-old Taylor, a former chemist with a business background, brings real-world acumen to the bike venture, Glidden said. He envisions opening next summer, holding open-air bike maintenance clinics, selling sturdy yet affordable bikes and, most of all, building a cycling community that improves its own health.

Taylor described his goal as "to help people find their way from, 'I want to bike' to 'I can bike.' " He's counting on help from the Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota, which promotes cycling in the black community. One technique will be "slow-roll" rides, a series of conversationally paced tours that orient riders to cycling facilities and destinations in their neighborhoods that are easily reached on two wheels.

"What makes biking work for me are little nodes of activity that connect people to their destinations," he said. Those connections can forge the links that can turn 38th into another Eat Street, the reincarnation of a once-moribund Nicollet Avenue, he said.

Bridging the I-35W divide

Seward Co-op's Friendship Store isn't due to open until early October, but it is already having an impact. For example, customers of the current Seward store contributed $18,470 to Sabathani's food shelf last year. The new store grew out of the four-neighborhood Carrot Initiative, which sought a full-service grocery for the area. Developer and landlord Mike Stebnitz was a founder of that effort. He's also helped to revive retail activity at 38th and Chicago.

"I'm very confident that Seward is going to perform beautifully," Stebnitz said. "What it does masterfully is bridge the 35W divide that we have been trying to bridge for decades in our community."

That still leaves some nervous that the potential for gentrification could price some out of the neighborhood. That should be monitored, Glidden said, but she's encouraged that local property owners are investing in the neighborhood.

LaDonna Redmond, the co-op's education and outreach coordinator, calls the project a long-overdue investment in the area.

"What we have to do is figure out investment that doesn't displace people in the neighborhood," she said. She notes that the store will mean at least 100 jobs, two-thirds of them full time, paying wages of almost $14 per hour, not counting benefits. By employing people who live in the area, she said, the store won't extract wealth but circulate it in the local economy.

Meanwhile, the latest project taken on by Stebnitz near 38th is the building long occupied by Furniture Liquidators on Chicago. He's closing on it with plans to work with multiple tenants all involved in businesses focused on sustainability, such as recycling clothing or selling supplies for urban agriculture. He hopes to transition the building to one owned cooperatively by those retailers.

He lives just a block away.

"A lot of developers or landlords try to keep their distance. I'm sort of the opposite of that," he said. With crime down substantially from the 1990s, and pending improvements, "it's a very exciting area."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

Twitter: @brandtstrib