Tim Knopik has always trusted his smoked meats to entice loyal customers back to his butcher shop, but it hasn’t always been easy getting newcomers through the front door.

That’s why he decided, four years ago, to spruce up the door itself and boost its curb appeal by simplifying his window display, replacing the store’s torn awning and swapping his old sign for a snazzier design. The resulting boon to business at Finer Meats Co. took Knopik — known as “Mr. Finer” — by surprise.

“Customers would wander in and ask, ‘Is this a new store?’ ” said Knopik, whose meat market has been open on the 3700 block of Nicollet Avenue since 1963.

The exterior upgrades totaled $11,000, but Knopik didn’t have to foot the bill alone. The city pitched in $5,000 as part of a matching grant program that aims to freshen up business corridors. Since 2008, the city has given more than $1.7 million to businesses for facade improvements as part of the Great Streets Program, while also spurring more than $4 million in private investment.

The program, run by the Community Planning and Economic Development department, has seen a steady uptick in demand from an increasingly diverse pool of applicants across the city. Each year, the city awards the grants — up to $50,000 — to community groups and business associations to disperse to individual business owners. In 2016, the city divided $435,000 in contracts among 11 groups, compared with $330,000 in 2015.

City staff attributes building interest in Great Streets to the longevity of the program and postrecession stability. With more storefronts benefiting, noticeable revitalization along certain streets has started to take hold, said Rebecca Parrell, the program manager of Great Streets.

Storefront changes

Business owners near the corner of 38th and Nicollet, including Knopik, say facade improvements have helped transform the area, attracting new tenants and customers. Since 2008, storefronts clustered along the corner have received $80,000 from the city for facade face-lifts, with fix-ups like fresh paint, signs, awnings and windows accounting for about $250,000 worth of projects.

“That corner is a poster child for what good the city money did,” said Roger Worm, who manages the program for the Southwest Business Association. “It’s a thriving, go-to corner now.”

At the meat market, Knopik remembers when the corner didn’t feel so lively and when crime and empty storefronts made business bleak. But an improved feeling of safety and a fresher streetscape have made a difference, he said, adding sales have jumped 20 percent since 2014.

“It’s been a step-by-step process among businesses here,” Knopik said. “But when it all came together, it just rocked.”

Participating groups say the program has helped build trust among small business owners traditionally skeptical of the city.

“Often there can be a kind of adversarial feeling [between businesses and the city],” said Renee Spillum, project manager at Seward Redesign, a community development nonprofit that regularly receives Great Street funds. “This program is a great counter to that.”

Groups administering the grants have also noticed growing participation among immigrant business owners in recent years.

There’s Maria Perez Gali, the owner of the Spanish immersion child care center Circulo de Amigos, who received a grant last year through the Lake Street Council and used it to paint the exterior of her 138-year-old building. And Joe Hatch-Surisook, who plans to use his funding from the Northeast Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce to get new windows for his Thai restaurant, Sen Yai Sen Lek.

‘We want to stand out’

Word-of-mouth recommendations, business associations say, are largely responsible for the swelling participation.

That’s how Burhan “Scot” Elmi, who arrived in Minnesota in 1999 from Somalia, found out about the program last year. Elmi runs a cafe with his wife, Kayf Ahmed, on the 2400 block of E. Franklin Avenue. When they first opened Capitol Cafe in February 2015, the pair put exterior improvements on the back burner, focusing instead on fine-tuning operations inside their business, which specializes in Somali teas.

But Elmi and Ahmed recently decided it was time to do something about their lackluster storefront and remembered Great Streets. So they’ve applied and been approved for grant funds through Seward Redesign to get a new sign and window logos in bright orange colors.

“The most common complaint we hear from customers is that they didn’t know we existed,” Ahmed said. “We want to stand out.”