Three St. Paul cultural malls have been awarded $300,000 each through a state grant program for businesses struggling as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) is doling out a total of $3 million to 12 businesses through the Minnesota Cultural Mall Operator Grants program. St. Paul recipients include Hmong Village Shopping Center, HmongTown Marketplace and Century Plaza. Midtown Global Market and Karmel Mall were among the recipients in Minneapolis.

The grant program is part of the $70 million Main Street COVID Relief Grant package that the Legislature passed during the 2021 session and Gov. Tim Walz signed into law in June. Mall operators can use up to $25,000 for working capital expenses; the remainder must be used to maintain existing tenants and business by issuing credits or rent forgiveness, according to DEED.

State Rep. Jay Xiong, vice chair of the Workforce and Business Development Finance and Policy committee, co-authored legislation establishing the program. Throughout his life, the St. Paul DFLer saw firsthand how cultural malls benefit communities across the state, he said in a news release.

"When we invest in our Black, Indigenous and people of color business owners, we're investing in our collective future as a state," Xiong said in a statement. "Small businesses are the backbone of our local economy, and I am glad we could get this program signed into law."

Hmong Village Shopping Center General Manager Thomas Herr said it was exciting to receive word of the forthcoming grant.

"We appreciate the state looking after everybody, including Hmong Village," Herr said.

But the grant is a drop in the bucket for struggling business owners who have yet to regain their pre-pandemic customer base, he said. Traditionally the market had thousands of customers a day, but now sees less than 100 on a given weekday.

And now, with the arrival of the omicron variant, the future remains uncertain for Hmong Village and other small business owners, Herr said.

"People are truly suffering, the small mom and pop stores, because they poured their savings out to start their business, not knowing that the pandemic was going to be part of their future," he said.