Spencer Puckett has had to close his south Minneapolis store several times this year, first because of coronavirus restrictions in the spring and then because of damage from riots following the police killing of George Floyd.
His apparel business, Captain Rebel, is one of 17 businesses owned by women or people of color that will reopen in a storefront at Mall of America called Community Commons while rebuilding efforts continue in their former locations.
The mall is making the space available for free to the tenants for at least six months, including the normally busy holiday shopping season.
"We recognize these businesses have [gone] through a tremendous amount of hardship, whether they were directly impacted physically from the arson or the looting destruction that was taking place or just that sense of lost business," said Jill Renslow, MOA's executive vice president of business development and marketing.
The physical damage was on top of business issues caused by the pandemic, she said.
"It's a great opportunity," said Puckett, whose business sells jackets, hoodies and other apparel. "I didn't expect for them to do something like this."
Starting Thursday, Captain Rebel and the other businesses will be in a 5,000-square-foot space on the second floor where a Riley Rose store was.
The Minneapolis and St. Paul businesses will feature a variety of products from clothing and accessories to art and prepackaged food.
Puckett, who is Black, had been interested in opening a store in the mall, but then the pandemic hit and business slowed.
"This shows me if I can really open my own [mall] store," Puckett said on Tuesday as he made his way from MOA across the street to Ikea to grab some more hangers for his store display.
Jasmine McConnell, owner of Butters By Jay, said the free rent at the Community Commons was a major relief that allows her to focus on getting her brand more exposure.
"There are so many larger stores that are well known in the Mall of America," said McConnell, who also is Black and sells collections of shea butter, bath bombs, soaps and scrubs. "To give 17 vendors the opportunity to be on that same platform — and it's free — it's the biggest opportunity ever."
In June, the mall started reaching out to community groups to figure out how it could partner with small businesses hurt by the civil unrest that erupted after the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
Floyd's death sparked international outcry and protests against police use of force, as well as riots. In the Twin Cities, hundreds of businesses including small, locally owned stores had doors or windows broken or were looted or set afire.
The mall selected Knock Inc., a women-led creative agency, to come up with the Community Commons concept and branding and help with the store's design.
Knock is doing the work pro bono and also has helped some of the tenants with merchandising and logos, said Reginaldo Reyes, vice president of brand experience and environmental design for the agency.
"There is a physical connection with business owners that you don't get unless it's in this market concept, where you are actually talking to the makers or the person who is buying the product," Reyes said.
It's not the first time MOA has experimented with pop-up retail.
The mall launched a RAAS (retail as a service) market of local makers in late 2017 and has had different iterations of the project. The most recent version, called Fourpost, offered physical space for retailers that had mostly sold their products online.
Fourpost closed early this year and transferred to Triple Five Group's American Dream mall in New Jersey. Triple Five also owns Mall of America.
Last month, MOA announced Minnesota Transitions Charter School would open temporarily in the mall after its offices and school were damaged in the spring riots.
The plan is for Community Commons to stay open through the end of March, though it's possible the space could remain, either with current businesses or rotating in other retailers.
This week, the businesses were setting up the space, which will include artwork the mall commissioned from the nonprofit youth art and design center Juxtaposition Arts.
While helping other businesses suffering from the pandemic, the MOA has its own financial issues because of the economy caused by the pandemic.
At the beginning of the month, the mall announced it planned to lay off more than 200 people and might have to extend the furloughs of nearly 180 more.
Because of the mall's closure during the onset of the pandemic, Triple Five has fallen several months behind on the megamall's mortgage. The mall's loan was transferred to special servicing, and the mall's owners have entered into a cash management forbearance agreement that includes increased reporting requirements and monthly remittance of cash.