Teetering on ladders, crews finished painting, drywalling and wiring lights last week inside the twice-torched O'Reilly Auto Parts Store just off University Avenue in St. Paul.
The inside is finished, said Northrup Construction superintendent Ronnie Kiebler. All that's left are inspections and the parking lot.
Two years after rioters in the wake of George Floyd's murder burned 37 buildings and damaged another 300 across St. Paul, O'Reilly's and the other mangled businesses along the 3.5-mile University Avenue stretch are starting to recover.
With state funds arriving slowly, corporations, neighbors and nonprofits poured more than $13 million into University Avenue, helping dazed and underinsured business owners survive.
"Most of the places have either rebuilt or relocated, or at least made a decision about what they're going to do. But there are a few places still up in the air," said Midway Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Chad Kulas.
The heavily damaged $1 million AutoZone store at 1075 University and the $800,000 Enterprise Rent-A-Car building at 1161 University were bulldozed, rebuilt and reopened last year. The battered Target, Cub Foods and Goodwill stores are now fully operational.
Forced to relocate after rioters smashed their livelihoods, the immigrant owners of Lee Nails, Ahn's Hairstylists, Bolé Ethiopian Cuisine, Peking Garden and King Crab near Midway all landed on their feet, thanks to grants given from the $1.3 million raised by the Midway Chamber of Commerce, St. Paul Area Chamber, St. Paul Downtown Alliance and hundreds of thousands more from the city's Star and Bridge fund programs.
The big question mark on University Avenue is over the future of the site where the burned 19-tenant Midway Shopping Center and Big Top Liquors once stood next to the $250 million Allianz Field stadium. Both were razed in October, leaving a tower of crushed rock in a field of nothing for months. The debris was removed last week.
Six years ago, the city approved plans for the 25-acre site to become a "village" of apartments, offices, retail shops and a hotel.
"If certain things hadn't happened, there might have been some stuff up already," said Bill McGuire, the site's minority partner and an owner of the Minnesota United FC soccer team.
Some of the investors interested in the area by University and Snelling halted talks, citing the riots, the pandemic and city rent-control mandates.
McGuire gave no date, but said the site "will get developed ... This is going to happen."
"There is no less interest in what the original idea was, which is to make this a village, a place people want to live and work and visit," he said. "It's far too important an area in our community not to further enhance. It's historically significant."
Nearby sit other barren lots, including the former site of a Sports Dome clothing shop and a NAPA Auto Parts store by N. Syndicate Street.
The void left by the former Bolé Ethiopian restaurant inside the NAPA building still pains co-owner Solomon Hailie, despite chamber grants and Bolé's relocation to a now-flourishing site in Como Park, where sales and staff have doubled.
While he is happy for Bolé's new success, every time he drives by the old location, "I feel like I get empty," Hailie said last week. "That was our baby."
Mortenson Co. and the Minneapolis Foundation raised $1.7 million in "Restore-Rebuild-Reimagine" funds to help 37 of Hailie's neighbors in the Midway area.
The money allowed Axman Surplus, the Turf Club, Latuff Brothers Auto and other tiny businesses to board up busted windows, exteriors, doors and walls and replace stolen equipment.
"These businesses are resilient," said Lynn Littlejohn, a Mortenson vice president. "When you think of all the trauma they went through, we could have seen them quit, but they stayed and fought."
More help is coming.
In October, the state granted the St. Paul and Minnesota Foundation $9 million to help riot-damaged businesses along the University-Snelling and Rice Street corridors.
In December, St. Paul allocated $1.9 million in civil unrest and bridge funds to help small businesses untangle insurance issues, and buy or fix their buildings. Other city aid will follow, and that money will help with the ravaged area's conversion into an economic force, said St. Paul City Council Member Chris Tolbert.
There already are wins. A lunchtime crowd filled tables at the relocated Peking Garden at 394 University Av. W. on Thursday as co-owners Tommy Lee and Mary Lau bounced between kitchen and guests.
Some 70% of the restaurant's business is back, Lee said. Now Peking Garden's most pressing need is not survival, but hiring more workers.
Blocks away, the BP gas station was finally razed.
"That is a win for the neighborhood. It was a location that caused a lot of challenges," said Sarah O'Brien, director of the Hamline Midway Coalition. "There has been a lot of radical change since George Floyd was murdered, and in general we are still feeling the impact. But there has been some good progress. I can't wait to see what is to come."