Early March marked the Payne Arcade Business Association's last in-person board meeting for a while. Bar noises and the smell of French fries wafted up the stairs to a wood-paneled space above Brunson's Pub on St. Paul's East Side, where wooden tables formed a large rectangle.

Molly LaFleche hurried in, wearing a light gray pantsuit and carrying a laptop and papers. The dynamic co-owner of Brunson's and president of the Payne Arcade Business Association, LaFleche got right down to business with PABA's board.

The group had big plans: a community mural, a live concert, grant applications, an Earth Day celebration, fundraisers.

Flash forward. The board is still meeting monthly, but virtually. Everything has changed — except the group's commitment to creating an inviting, lively Payne Avenue.

"This neighborhood is so diverse and there's so much here. … This community is full of really talented people and our hearts are in it," said LaFleche.

The Payne-Phalen area has long been a multicultural hub and home to immigrants and refugees. On Payne Avenue alone, there is the Little Burma Grocery, the Italian market Morelli's, Mexican grocer Bymore Supermercado and the Somali-owned Karibu Grocery & Deli.

Over the decades, the East Side has transformed time and time again. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was bustling as companies like Whirlpool, 3M and Hamm's employed thousands of workers there. But economic decline in the following decades drew businesses elsewhere and sucked life out of the neighborhood.

Now, it's time for another transformation: Payne Avenue is being reborn as an arts district.

A native of New York City's Queens borough who married a Minnesota native, PABA member Dimitri Hatzigeorgiou saw Payne's potential from the start.

"I fell in love with it immediately because it reminded me of several streets in Queens … very diverse, vibrant [neighborhoods] that had the same feel," he said.

On his first drive along Payne in 2014, Hatzigeorgiou said he spotted a historic building, called up the seller and spontaneously purchased it.

That building now houses Caydence Records & Coffee, a neighborhood staple on the corner of York Avenue. The coffee shop also functions as a music venue, hosting a wide range of performances in its back room.

Hatzigeorgiou is also behind Art @ 967 Payne, a former furniture store transformed into a collaborative co-working space for artists. (Artists are continuing to use the space while practicing social distancing.)

"It's a complete representation of the neighborhood," he said. "There are people of color, different ethnic groups, different ages."

Banking on change

In 2018, Hatzigeorgiou bought the space next door: 965 Payne Av., or — as it's known to locals — the Old Swedish Bank building. The stately brick building with white columns was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. Constructed in 1923, it has remained a prominent building on the avenue for decades, at one point serving as a hub for banking services, neighborhood newspaper offices, insurance agencies and physician and dentist offices.

The space's latest transformation: The Treasury, a new basement music venue from Twin Cities Catalyst Music, the nonprofit that runs The Garage, an all-ages venue in Burnsville.

The plan has been in the works for several years. "We always saw a need to bring access to folks through music, especially in all-ages spaces," said Jack Kolb-Williams, co-founder and executive director of Twin Cities Catalyst Music. Its search for a neighborhood that could benefit from such a venue led to Payne. Like The Garage, the basement space would function as a music-education center and community meeting place.

"We really want to focus on the young folks that live in the community to be the ones leading and booking the space," said Kolb-Williams, who is a St. Paul resident and PABA member.

The COVID-19 virus has created some setbacks for the project, which was set to open this summer. Most of the construction is done — all that is left are "aesthetic changes," said Hatzigeorgiou. In upcoming weeks, Kolb-Williams says, Catalyst will begin hiring locals for remote advisory board opportunities and leadership roles.

Five blocks up the street, Jon Oulman, co-owner of the Amsterdam Bar and Hall in downtown St. Paul and the 331 Club in Minneapolis, launched the Jon Oulman Gallery with a pop-up show last year. It's attached to Café Lilla, a soon-to-open wine bar with international cuisine, and Le Femme, an upscale home-goods shop.

Oulman, a longtime figure in the Twin Cities art, music and restaurant scene, has owned a host of galleries dating back to the early 1980s. This latest project is in collaboration with restaurant consultant Bill LaVigne.

On the next block north, St. Paul artist Chris Larson and his wife, Kriss Zulkosky, have converted an old linoleum shop into Second Shift Studio Space. The East Side residents established a fellowship a year ago offering free studio space to women or nonbinary artists.

'The future is bright'

In spite of the uncertainty brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, PABA is still planning on ways to uplift the community. Come what may, it still wants to have a parade in August, whether that means people gathering in person or driving down Payne Avenue in their cars.

"Finding a way to still do the parade, even in 'Coronaland' … I like it," LaFleche said.

Board member Stephan Kistler is also heading up the Payne Area Reboot, a volunteer-run project to draw people to Payne's arts and food destinations and provide community outreach. Kistler, a former 3M executive, is a talented photographer in his own right. In 2018, he took a series of black-and-white portraits of life on Payne that were displayed in the East Side Arts Council office.

One of Payne Reboot's undertakings has been cleaning up storefronts and asking residents and business owners to "adopt a block" and keep it trash-free.

"If we spruced up some of the storefronts with interesting art exhibits, or other intriguing things for children, and encouraged people to take a leisurely, physically distant walk up and down the avenue, that would be another way to put ourselves on the map and keep us in the minds of people," Kistler said at a recent PABA meeting.

Even for a neighborhood that has seen better days, one thing stands: There is immense pride on St. Paul's East Side.

"Having music, having art on the avenue — it's only the beginning," Hatzigeorgiou said. "The future is bright."