The only way Solomon Hailie could bring back his St. Paul restaurant after its destruction in last year's civil unrest was to leave the Midway neighborhood.
"Our goal was to stay, but we couldn't find anything [along University Avenue]," Hailie said. So he moved Bolé Ethiopian Cuisine to a building he bought 2 miles away near the State Fairgrounds.
"But this wouldn't have even been possible without the support we received," Hailie said.
Businesses on a hard-hit stretch of University Avenue are rebuilding, nearly a year after the riots following the death of George Floyd left more than 70 businesses damaged, more than a dozen of them with serious fire damage.
While some windows remain boarded and scattered sites are vacant, more than $2 million in cash grants that will be paid to affected businesses has the avenue's champions hopeful for better days ahead. From money to repair shattered windows and torched interiors to cash to supplant business lost to pandemic and riot, officials hope the support can stabilize the Midway area as it tries to come back.
One source of recovery funding is the Neighbors United Funding Collaborative, created to beautify and improve security in the neighborhoods adjacent to Allianz Field. When the pandemic hit last spring, the fund pivoted to help businesses harmed by COVID, fund manager Isabel Chanslor said. It swelled with donations after Floyd's death fueled unrest. More than $600,000 has been awarded, with contributions now climbing past $1 million.
Most of the grants have been for $50,000, Chanslor said. Not enough to make everyone whole.
"We know there are some that lost everything," she said. "We want to make sure they don't feel like they're abandoned, that nobody cares."
Many grant recipients are small businesses, almost all of which were uninsured or underinsured.
"We're just trying to get people going and get them through the next day," said Wayne Moore, who works to connect small businesses with the collaborative. "Maybe this little bit will help them through this. A lifeline to make you not quit."
In the days after Floyd died in the custody of Minneapolis police, rioters tore through dense stretches of Minneapolis, St. Paul and other metro communities, causing millions in damage to more than 1,500 properties, a Star Tribune analysis showed.
In St. Paul, the hardest-hit area was a one-mile stretch of the Midway neighborhood along University Avenue between Snelling and Lexington avenues. Within days, area residents and neighboring businesses responded — first in sweeping up broken glass and boarding missing windows and doors. Then, raising money.
In a campaign dubbed "We Love Midway/We Love St. Paul," the Midway Chamber of Commerce, the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and the St. Paul Downtown Alliance began raising what has become $1.36 million from more than 950 companies and individuals, according to Kathleen Lohmar Exel, executive director of the St. Paul chamber foundation.
About 80 businesses have received grants — 51 that suffered physical damage, with others getting help after losing inventory or being forced to close because of COVID-related restrictions.
"It's such a testament to this community," said B Kyle, president and CEO of the St. Paul chamber. "The investment from the private sector to support our neighbors in crisis has been nothing short of extraordinary."
After receiving grants of more than $80,000 from the Midway and St. Paul chambers, Gloria Wong said she intends to stay.
On May 28, a crowd ransacked her Century Plaza building at 995 W. University Av., damaging many of her 25 tenants' suites and shattering interior and exterior windows. They even tried to set the building ablaze, but gave up after the fire failed to catch.
The trouble has continued. People have shot bullets through doors and smashed windows. She blames anti-Asian bias.
"I'm very depressed. I can't sleep at night," said Wong, who as a young girl walked 14 days with her family to a refugee camp in Thailand to escape persecution in Laos.
Still Wong says she's "80% confident" University will rebound. "But it takes the community to work together," Wong said, tearfully praising the assistance of Chad Kulas, the Midway chamber's executive director. "I'm a little guy. A lady minority business owner. For people to reach out to help is a blessing."
Nicolle Goodman, St. Paul's new director of planning and economic development, said the chambers and NUFC working together is helping the Midway area "definitely start finding its way back." As rebuilding continues, she said she hopes the city can work with neighborhood organizations and developers to forge strategies that preserve the area's rich diversity of small businesses.
"We are working on sketching out what that might look like," she said. One possibility is finding ways to promote more small businesses buying their properties rather than leasing.
That is what Hailie did, after combining about $100,000 in grants from the chambers with more than $154,000 raised through GoFundMe.
He and his wife were at the restaurant May 28, getting ready to unveil a new to-go operation similar to Chipotle, but with Ethiopian food, when they saw the crowd growing at the Midway Target across University. Hailie, who said he had always supported first responders but was heartbroken by the video of Floyd's death, said he wasn't worried. Still, his wife persuaded him to close the restaurant and go home.
Then he received a call from an employee who told him "some people are running around" and the neighboring NAPA auto parts store was burning. He'd left behind his laptop, new televisions and a cash register still holding money. He returned to the restaurant.
"I opened the door and there was a wall of smoke," he said. "I'd never seen such a thing."
The NAPA store shared a ceiling with his business. He knew it was gone too.
After weeks of being unable to contact his landlord to talk about rebuilding, Hailie said he began looking for a building to buy. Even though the place he found is outside the neighborhood, Midway businesses and chamber officials still enthusiastically helped him start anew, he said. With that type of support, he said, there's a good chance other Midway businesses will come back as well.
"With what the chamber and the [collaborative] are doing, it's possible," he said. "But all those businesses are going to need community support. People are going to have to come back."
James Walsh • 612-673-7428