Olivia Rodriguez spent the week sweeping up the shattered remnants of the car audio systems that she sold in her small Lake Street store before it was ransacked in the violence following George Floyd’s death at the hands of police.
She didn’t know it yet, but she and her neighboring small-business owners on Lake Street were in for a much-needed surprise.
In the weeks ahead, about 140 businesses are expected to receive stipends of several thousand dollars to help replenish inventory, repair broken glass and rebuild under a new project of Urban Ventures, a nonprofit supporting children and families in south Minneapolis.
Many businesses also will be cranking out gift cards and gift certificates, which will be purchased by Urban Ventures and donated to the community to spark reinvestment and jobs in the neighborhood.
“We want to help those businesses that didn’t burn to the ground, and we want to do it fast,” said Urban Ventures CEO Dave Hawn. “We can do that right now, while other [larger] business programs work through their requirements.”
Fast financial aid would definitely be a boost, said Rodriguez.
“We lost about $25,000 in merchandise,” said the owner of El Rey Car Audio. “If I had more money, I would buy more merchandise, a computer, a security camera. It would be a big help.”
As charities and faith groups have rushed to provide emergency food relief for Lake Street-area residents whose grocery stores were shuttered during the protests, Urban Ventures is among the organizations able to now pivot to a second relief phase aimed at the future.
Thanks to a wide network of business, religious and individual supporters, and a recent $800,000 anonymous donation, the south Minneapolis nonprofit next hopes to feed the finances of its business neighbors.
Its emergency grocery donations and giveaways will continue until at least the end of the month, said Hawn. The Minnesota Timberwolves organization, for example, was on hand Tuesday with thousands of boxes of donated food and household supplies. Megachurches such as Eagle Brook, which brought a semitrailer of goods about two weeks ago, is launching a similar donation Wednesday, Hawn said.
But helping neighborhood grocery stores and other essential services reopen is a critical part of the food equation, said Hawn. Offering free gift cards to purchase locally is a win-win situation, he said.
“Giving away free stuff is great in a crisis,” said Hawn. “But we need to get these small grocery stores, markets and restaurants back open.”
Cash jump-start needed
Urban Ventures, in a typical summer, offers academic support for neighborhood students, music lessons, athletics and other services to support families. Much of that is now online because of health restrictions related to COVID-19. Instead, for the past month its gymnasium has been converted into an enormous food and household goods center, with thousands of residents walking or driving over to retrieve them.
More recently, staff have been taking an inventory of their business neighbors to learn what they need to rebuild. The overwhelming conclusion: They needed cash to jump-start.
That cash suddenly became available when two anonymous donors, a local businessman and his father, offered $800,000 for direct aid, said Hawn. Those funds soon will be directed to businesses on Lake Street between Portland Avenue and Interstate 35W.
A walk down Lake Street shows a dire need. Most storefronts near Urban Ventures, located near 4th Avenue and Lake Street, remain boarded up. A few have opened back entrances, such as the Lake Plaza mall, which offers Latin American and East African wares.
Rodriguez was among several store owners at the mall cleaning up the shards of her livelihood. She said she’s been helped by Urban Ventures ever since she first began cleaning up the place, first with free meals as she sorted through the mess and next with information on how to apply for programs that could help her rebuild.
“We had insurance, but it didn’t cover robbery or vandalism,” Rodriguez sighed. “In two hours, they destroyed what took us 10 years to build.”
Nearby, Sahra Jama took a break with her daughter in an empty stall of her Diriye Store that once held carpets, curtains, blankets and other home decor items from Africa and the Middle East. They had repainted a section of the walls, added some shelves. But they were still grappling with $40,000 in lost or damaged merchandise.
Such scenes are repeated over and over in the Lake Street area, said Hawn. He wants to focus on long-term economic recovery, adding, “Recovery is not just as bricks and mortar, but as recovering the whole community.”