Angie and Ted Vig's St. Paul guitar shop had been closed for two months when the grant check came from the city — a $7,500 sigh of relief that meant they could pay rent while they made plans to reopen amid COVID-19.
Then, weeks later, as the unrest following George Floyd's May 25 killing by Minneapolis police spread to St. Paul, looters broke into their Snelling Avenue store, trashing the tiny shop and stealing instruments and equipment valued at $40,000.
Vig Guitars is among several businesses that were randomly chosen to get emergency cash assistance through the St. Paul Bridge Fund, only to see their stores damaged or destroyed weeks later, according to data analyzed by the Star Tribune. The data, obtained through a public records request, provides a first look at how the $4.1 million Bridge Fund was spent, as some recipients scramble to file insurance claims and launch crowdsourcing efforts to rebuild.
Nearly 250 buildings in St. Paul were damaged during the civil unrest at the end of May, according to data analyzed by the Star Tribune. Four were destroyed by fire, including two, Bolé Ethiopian Cuisine and Sports Dome, that received Bridge Fund checks just weeks before.
"Almost a lifetime in there, just gone overnight," said Won Kim, who owned Sports Dome and ran an apparel business there with his family for more than 20 years.
Kim said he hasn't spent the $7,500 Bridge Fund grant yet, and he is working on getting insurance money. He's not sure whether he'll rebuild or sell the land and move on.
In an interview, Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said that, as rebuilding begins, the city wants to work with community members to ensure that vacant parcels aren't snapped up by real estate developers who have no stake in the city and its neighborhoods.
City leaders made an unsuccessful appeal to the state for recovery help during the special legislative session and continue to meet weekly with their legislative delegation and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum's office, Tincher said. City officials are considering an array of tools, including tax increment financing, to help keep businesses afloat, she said. They're also encouraging St. Paul residents to shop local.
"The thing that would be most helpful is just the access to capital," Tincher said. "That would really allow us to take the time to work with the community to say, what is our plan for what the future of this space looks like, and what opportunities could we take advantage of?"
St. Paul has its own financial concerns — city officials are projecting a multimillion-dollar 2020 deficit due to COVID-19. The city's Housing and Redevelopment Authority spent $3.25 million on the Bridge Fund, which was combined with $865,000 in philanthropic dollars. Grants were available to low-income families and small businesses that lost income as a result of COVID-19.
Of more than 1,700 St. Paul businesses that applied for Bridge Fund grants, 380 received them, according to the city. Recipients, chosen at random, ranged from restaurants and nail salons to auto shops and gyms, data show.
Some business that are part of larger chains, including Dunn Brothers, Jamba Juice and Dunkin' Donuts, also were awarded grants. Tincher said grants were available to small, local businesses that pay franchise fees but don't have access to corporate capital.
After receiving grants, businesses that were damaged during the unrest are now searching for other ways to rebuild what they've lost. Little Saigon Supermarket on University Avenue was able to reopen despite some property damage, but it has lost some business because customers from outside St. Paul are afraid to come into the city and shop there, said Kim Nguyen, whose family owns the business.
Many business owners have turned to the crowdsourcing platform GoFundMe, with varying results. Vig Guitars raised more than $20,000, then encouraged donors to redirect their support elsewhere. As of Thursday, Sports Dome had raised about $3,500 between two GoFundMe pages. Bolé surpassed its $100,000 goal within days.
There's still a long way to go, said Solomon Hailie, who owns Bolé with his wife and used the Bridge Fund grant to pay their employees.
As renters of their space — where they had just expanded and were on the cusp of opening a fast food spot — insurance will offer little help, Hailie said. The restaurant's future at the corner of University Avenue and Syndicate Street is uncertain.
"Building the restaurant back, or the business back, needs more help than just a GoFundMe," he said. "We want to get back to the city, and hopefully the city will be there to support us."
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