Tom Letness swept his eyes over the brick front of his iconic Central Avenue cinema in the afternoon sun and pointed to rough edges in need of repair.

“It really needs to be done,” Letness said last week about planned fixes to the Heights Theater’s exterior, as cars rumbled behind him on Columbia Heights’ main drag. “The only thing is finding a brick that matches.”

That project now could get a welcome boost from a new city grant program for Central Avenue businesses that aims to help property owners spruce up their store facades and fine-tune their security.

It’s an effort to breathe new life into a key corridor running through the inner-ring suburb, “the entrypoint into Columbia Heights,” said Keith Dahl, community development manager. “It’s what people see passing through every day. We wanted to make that something they’ll remember.”

Columbia Heights city officials long have envisioned their stretch of Central Avenue as a Twin Cities destination. They picture a vibrant business district and nightlife, complete with eateries, boutiques and coffee shops that build off the energy just down the road in bustling and trendy northeast Minneapolis.

Up to $5,000 available

Through the grant program, any commercial property on Central between 37th and 44th avenues NE. can apply for financial help with renovation work, with applications due July 27.

The program could help fund as many as 15 projects and will reimburse property owners for up to half of their eligible project costs, with a $5,000 maximum reimbursement.

That includes swapping out signage, fixing broken windows, repairing wall damage, applying fresh paint, installing new lighting and other exterior storefront projects.

City leaders looked at similar programs in places such as Minneapolis, which offers matching grants for facade improvements along business corridors.

“It’s kind of unique to see a smaller city like Columbia Heights do this,” Dahl said.

Police will be sifting through the applications and may select certain properties for new surveillance systems under the grant. Officers say facade improvements and more video surveillance will help cut criminal activity.

“Even at night, Central Avenue is a busy street,” said Capt. Matt Markham. “If we can improve lighting and some of those things around businesses, absolutely I believe it will reduce crime.”

‘A big deal’

That’s welcome news to people like Laura Alarcon, who whips up tamales and manages the Cuernavaca Market in a Central Avenue strip mall. On a recent afternoon, she recalled how someone removed the glass from the door to rob the store two years ago. In November, she said, a thief came in with a knife.

“Crime is worse,” she said. But new lighting or a security camera could help, she added.

The city’s goal of freshening up the area’s business corridor is part of the ongoing effort to revitalize Central Avenue, from sidewalk improvements to limiting auto-related businesses for a better retail mix.

Development on Central looks poised to heat up. A new apartment building, the first project of its kind in more than 30 years, is taking shape. And city officials have been keeping close tabs on a Hy-Vee they hope will open in a shopping center on Central.

Wes Johnson knows that when shoppers step out of Hy-Vee, they’ll look up and see the shoe store he manages across the street.

Johnson said Chet’s Shoes, in business since the 1940s, is interested in applying for a grant to perhaps install some sleek lighting fixtures out front. A grocery store coming to Columbia Heights, he said, will be “massive.”

“For a small business it’s a big deal,” he said. “There’s going to be so many eyes looking at us.”

Lots of potential

Some of the foot traffic on Central comes from public transit, which city officials cite as a key draw for newcomers to the area, given the city’s proximity to Minneapolis.

It’s one reason that resident Renee Jones-Johnson catches buses on Central to get downtown. On Thursday, she waited on the shaded sidewalk with her grandkids for a bus.

“I sold my car and needed a break from all the traffic,” she said. “What I love is that the buses run so frequently.”

Across the street, a man with a white ponytail stepped past a fireworks stand, balancing his glasses in one hand and a polite green parrot in the other. The recent Florida transplant scanned the busy thoroughfare in search of a spot to get his spectacles fixed.

“I was hoping it would be along here somewhere,” said 64-year-old Ken Bourke, peering down Central as his 27-year-old bird Scooter bobbed on his hand. “They have a good store variety.”

Back at the Heights the afternoon matinee “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” glowed on-screen. Outside, Letness stood in the shadow of his marquee, dreaming up new projects.

Eventually, he’d like the front windows to match. He plans to restore brick on one end of the building to make it uniform.

But for now, he said, the new grants are an important way for the city to fortify local businesses: “I’ve always said I think there’s tons of potential here.”