There's a correlation between small businesses and growing, vibrant communities, say Twin Cities entrepreneurs Michaella Holden and Vasiliki Papanikolopoulos.

A healthy cycle of neighborhood residents supporting locally owned shops leads to strengthening the economy and empowering those who live in those communities, they said.

Their True North Collaborative in the Seven Points building in Uptown hopes to facilitate that growth and add back some of the luster to the neighborhood hit by retail disruption and then the pandemic and unrest. The space has a cafe and studio space that would allow for pop-up shops.

"I believe there are better things to come for the cities and I think every person, no matter who they are and what walk of life they come from, needs to keep the community in mind as we move forward," Holden said.

There is a need to rethink how retail and creative space can look, she said.

The project is a partnership between Holden's Lucent Blue Events and Panikolopoulos' creative studio business Coimatan. It has already partnered with a handful of small businesses.

While new condo buildings continue being built in Uptown, the retail disruption after 2016, and then the coronavirus pandemic and the unrest and looting after the police killing of George Floyd resulted in a series of restaurants and businesses closing in the neighborhood.

Apple began discussions to close its Uptown store before the pandemic and it is now gone, creating a noticeable hole. In the past two years, other big brands to exit include Columbia Sportswear, North Face and Victoria's Secret.

Holden said she believes small businesses can be an engine for economic justice and hopes the new project can help.

In June, True North Collaborative held a preview event inside Seven Points, where people toured the cafe and studio spaces and sampled items from a few local small businesses. The project is focusing on retail and culinary businesses for the project, given their ability to affect local commerce and showcase family-owned and diverse-owned businesses.

"By working together and partnering, we're really empowering their employees and the owners, and all of that money and resources go back into that community, whether it be the neighborhood that shop is located, or the people being serviced by that small business. It's all interconnected," Papanikolopoulos said.

Other experiments in pop-up collaboratives such as the Minnesota Marketplace in Mall of America have been successful. Some of the graduates of the MOA space now have their own storefronts at the mall.

Papanikolopoulos started Coimatan in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic to help brick and mortar shops digitally connect with consumers during social distancing.

In addition to a studio, the True North Collaborative project will also curate classes and events and provide space for community dialogue.

Holden and Papanikolopoulos specifically chose to launch the project in Uptown for its diversity and variety of small businesses. They also wanted to insert more small businesses into a shopping mall like Seven Points, which typically house large retail chains.

"When we chose to explore the possibility of opening up in Uptown, we wanted to be somewhere where there was a good opportunity for creating a community hub," Holden said.

Uptown has an opportunity to move beyond a cookie-cutter mentality, Holden said, adding there is a window for the community to return to its diverse roots and build on its tradition of artistic expression. It can also be a testing ground for the transformation of retail.

"People crave connection, and I think retail business in general is going through a huge transformation given the digital age we're in, and retail that's going to survive is going to be retail that gives consumers a reason to come together in a space," Holden said.