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Business turnover on St. Paul's Grand Avenue raises concern

If there's been a notable change on Grand Avenue, it isn't just the departure of nightlife spots like Axel's Bonfire and the Wild Onion. It's also the arrival of out-of-state property owners.
Colossal Cafe has three Twin Cities locations. (Photo courtesy: Colossal Cafe)

At the Grand Hand Gallery on St. Paul's Grand Avenue, two new owners in their late 50s and 60s are making a go of it despite limited experience working retail.  

The gallery reopened in November after a monthlong hiatus for remodeling and rebranding - the "W2" on the outdoor name plate stands for "two women" or "women squared," take your pick. Local artistry, poetry readings, music performances and other in-store shows are all slated to begin in February, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported .  

"It's not easy. People can go online," acknowledged Mary Whitney, standing with her new business partner, Cathy Weyerhaeuser, surrounded by locally sourced bowls, soaps and art crafts. "But you can't see the glaze. You can't pick up the pottery."    

Along Grand Avenue, their enthusiasm is echoed by the proprietors of the recently expanded Golden Fig Fine Foods, as well as a string of new restaurants - Red Rabbit, Hyacinth, Grand Catch and the Iron Ranger, a northern Minnesota-themed eatery that began as the Sunrise Market.    

Just a few blocks down the street, however, Gary Huffman does not share in their optimism.   

"If I didn't own my building, I'd be gone already," said Huffman, longtime owner-operator of the Grand Ole Creamery and Grand Pizza, which has been dishing ice cream on the avenue since the mid-1980s.  

Rising property taxes and new regulations - such as St. Paul's sick-and-safe-time mandate and the future $15 minimum wage - have Huffman itching to close shop.   

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"We are seeing a reduced number of memberships," said Huffman, a board member with the Grand Avenue Business Association, "and it's obvious people are fed up."    

Fellow business owner Mike Schumann is equally frustrated and says he's almost out the door. Traditions Furniture, which has operated on Grand Avenue for 31 years, will hold its final sale in late January before consolidating in St. Louis Park. Schumann sold the building to a developer who is interviewing potential commercial tenants.    

"Lately, the attitude of the city has shifted from offering a helping hand," said Schumann, who said he feels micromanaged by local government.   

Traditions' departure will follow those of other Grand Avenue retailers - Bibelot, which closes in early 2019, Garden of Eden bath supplies and the Loft clothing store among them - as well as restaurants such as the Barbary Fig, the Wild Onion and Axel's Bonfire.   

"In my 30 years here, I haven't seen this many vacant spaces," said John Wengler, who runs the popular restaurant and bar Billy's on Grand. 

Is that normal turnover for an urban business district, a sign of waning demand for street-corner retail in the internet era, or a function of city policies, rising property taxes, high rents and new demographics?  

On a commercial corridor that for decades prided itself on its small to mid-sized family-run operations, some store owners have simply aged out of their shops and called it quits after decades in business. Roxy Freese, 84, began her Bibelot stores on Grand Avenue in 1966, and plans to retire with them within weeks.   

Customers' tastes and shopping habits have changed, too. And competition for their dollar comes from new destinations in the real world and online. Store owners say there's a palpable sense of evolution on Grand Avenue, for better and worse.   

Wengler feels cocktails and craft beer brewers have taken at least a small bite out of Billy's on Grand's night crowd.   

"Back when we first opened, there was nothing to do downtown," said Wengler, whose father, Bill Wengler, and uncle Jim Wengler opened Billy's on Grand in the mid-1970s. "Now a lot of breweries have their own taprooms."    

While floating a short-lived plan to add housing above its restaurant, the proprietors of Dixie's on Grand noted competition from suburban restaurants and new tap rooms among their reasons for wanting to further develop their location.    

Elsewhere, reasons for leaving a busy business district vary. A spokesman for Axel's Bonfire, which closed its Grand Avenue location in June, said at the time that their landlord declined to renew their lease. 

When Barbary Fig shut down in 2016, chef-owner Brahim Hadj-Moussa said that after 27 frantic years of running a kitchen, scheduling servers and fixing plumbing, he wanted to see the world. 

Other retailers say they've had an especially good run and show no signs of slowing down. The Red Balloon children's bookstore will celebrate its 35th anniversary next year with a series of special events.    

Relatively speaking, that makes them cubs compared with La Cucaracha at Dale Street and Grand, which has served up Mexican dishes for 54 years. And the restaurant just arrived compared with George's Shoes and Repair, which soled its first shoe in St. Paul in 1905.   

"We went from a three-man shop 10 years ago and we're a nine-man shop now," said Dan George, who co-owns the shoe-repair shop with his brother Ryan. "We're trending in the right direction."    

If there's been a notable change on Grand Avenue, it isn't just the departure of nightlife spots like Axel's Bonfire and the Wild Onion. It's also the arrival of out-of-state property owners.    

At Grand Avenue and Victoria Street, three of the four corner malls are registered to Grand Place LLC - otherwise known as the State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio.    

Jason Koenig, a Realtor and president of the Grand Avenue Business Association, and GABA director Connie DeLage plan to meet with representatives of the pension fund's property management company, Minneapolis-based Escom Properties, in the coming weeks to discuss the number of empty storefronts within the malls.

GABA has no authority to explicitly bar chain stores, and Starbucks, Chipotle, Jimmy John's, Pizza Hut, CVS, Walgreens, J. Crew and Pottery Barn all occupy prime real estate along the avenue. But Koenig would love to see more outreach to Minnesota-based companies, such as Broders' Pasta Bar.    

"How can we reach out to the kinds of businesses that we would want to see . . . and maybe work out a marketing plan, and keep some of that charm that Grand has had since the mid-1980s?" said Koenig, a partner with the Odd Couple realty, which bought a small building on Grand Avenue and moved from Roseville four years ago.   

The avenue, which is ringed by and dotted with housing, still offers a wide enough range of services from independent stores that for some there's no reason to ever leave it. "There's a birth center on Grand Avenue, and a funeral center, and you can do everything in between," Koenig said.   

The avenue has its protectors, and they can be tough. In 2002 and again in 2007, the Summit Hill Association successfully rallied to block the arrival of a Noodles & Co. fast-food restaurant. Also in 2007, EQ-Life, a spin-off of Richfield-based electronics giant Best Buy, closed after two years in operation, citing pushback from the Summit Hill Association for preventing them from reconfiguring their location to a workable size. 

The association, which remains protective of the area it represents from Ayd Mill Road to Summit Avenue, more recently objected to the North Star Bicycle Festival bringing food trucks to the avenue that would compete with local eateries.   

The five-day summer festival and bike race, which had also encountered challenges because of road construction in Minneapolis and other venues, was canceled this year.   

Still, plenty of chain stores dot the avenue, and plenty of small retailers have closed. Association members note that the city has relaxed (though not eliminated) certain zoning codes over the years, such as parking requirements based on floor-area ratios.  

"We strive to maintain the vibrancy that attracts visitors and residents to share in the charm of our neighborhood," said Summit Hill Association board president Hayden Howland, in a written statement. "While SHA does review variance requests and make recommendations to the city of St. Paul, the ultimate decision-making power regarding zoning and other similar matters rests with the city."   

Mary Reagan, a former school teacher, spent years as a part-time employee of the Garden of Eden bath and body store at Grand and Avon Street. The store moved three years ago, and then went online-only.   

"They were a 45-year brick-and-mortar business," said Reagan, who now works at Poppy Fun Fashion, a woman's clothing boutique in Victoria Crossing West. "There were all kinds of independent shops here, and they're just gone."    

Roxanne Sullivan thought it would be a good idea to open Trade Winds, her independent clothing store, within the mall at Victoria Crossing East almost three decades ago, and she still likes it there. But she's noticed the changes.  

"Since we've been on the avenue, this is the first time property owners are not as tied to the local area," Sullivan said. "When there are so many empty properties, it's important to remind customers that we're still here."   

For her part, Sullivan has no plans to go anywhere. "We've been here for 28 years," she said, "and still love it."

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