St. Paul’s Selby Avenue near Milton Street had been the last place where Mychael Wright wanted to open his Golden Thyme coffee shop.
“It was rough,” Wright said of the area, where few businesses operated at the time.
But nearly 20 years later, Wright’s cafe is a staple on a rejuvenated stretch of Selby. Soon, the shop will move into a larger space across the street in one of two new developments built to keep black-owned businesses like Wright’s flourishing on the boulevard.
In April, the $13.2 million Selby Milton Victoria Project will finish construction of the two buildings that will have space for seven black-owned businesses and 34 units of affordable senior housing. The project is spread out between formerly vacant lots a block from each other on Selby Avenue near Victoria and Milton streets.
While apartment tenants have begun to move in, many of the businesses including Golden Thyme won’t open until the grand opening in May.
The development, which was created by the Rondo Community Land Trust (CLT), is believed to be the result of the first commercial land trust program in the Twin Cities, which originated from similar residential land trusts and is designed to offer potential businesses affordable spaces to lease.
“We wanted to find a way to keep a number of small businesses on the street,” said Greg Finzell, executive director of the Rondo CLT.
Development along Selby Avenue has flourished with new restaurants and retailers moving into the area as well as new housing.
As development continues, there have been concerns that commercial rents will rise and potentially force out the smaller, minority-owned businesses which historically had prospered in the surrounding black Rondo neighborhood. Home affordability has also been a concern.
“There are no questions that parts of Rondo are starting to gentrify,” Finzell said.
Wright remembers as a toddler playing in the dirt that would later become Interstate 94. Little did he know as a child how the freeway would tear through the core of the Rondo neighborhood and spell the end for countless community businesses and homes.
“It fragmented a very vibrant community. … Now what you just see is perhaps a fledgling of what has been left and hopefully we can regain some of that,” said Wright, who is also a board member of the Rondo CLT.
As part of the commercial land trust, the Rondo CLT, which also operates a residential program, owns the properties at 940 Selby and 852 Selby and then leases the spaces in the building at affordable rates for businesses. Thanks to a partnership with fellow nonprofit Community Housing Development Corp., businesses will participate in a small business training program.
The group plans to share profits from the properties with commercial tenants.
A similar commercial land trust is being piloted in north Minneapolis.
Besides the enlarged Golden Thyme Coffee & Cafe, In Black Ink, which publishes books, will also have space in the 940 Selby Av. building. In the 852 Selby Av. building, there will be another restaurant called the Yard Bird, two live/work spaces for a transportation lecturer and a web designer and two other commercial spaces that will be taken up by an art gallery and a therapist’s office. All of the businesses are black-owned.
“On Selby with our project, I think we are trying to be more inclusive,” said Charles Bradley, board chair of the Rondo CLT. “I think outside of our project, businesses are priced out especially if you see the other side of Dale going toward downtown St. Paul.”
Wright has big plans for his new cafe which will be about double the amount of space of his current shop and feature a full kitchen as well as beer and wine.
Golden Thyme’s success has become a beacon for other black businesses. The annual jazz festival that Wright and his wife, Stephanie, organize on Selby Avenue has grown to attract thousands of music fans.
“We’ve come a long way,” he said. “There’s a saying, ‘A change is gonna come.’ Well, it’s here.”