ST PAUL, Minn. — The pandemic devastated downtown areas across the United States, leading to many empty storefronts as local businesses struggled to keep pace with the recovery.
In St. Paul, a group of business owners and the St. Paul Downtown Alliance decided to turn a negative into a positive.
"It's our effort to help fill some of the vacant storefronts," downtown alliance president Joe Spencer said. "Really, the role was to play matchmaker."
The program, part of the "Let's Grow" campaign, gives entrepreneurs a chance to take over these empty spaces rent-free for six months in a central corridor of downtown St. Paul. Since launching in August, five businesses have opened brick-and-mortar locations through the program, with three more soon to come.
Rammy Mohamed, a fashion designer and founder of Ramadhan Designs, took advantage of the program to build a storefront, office and studio space in the Wells Fargo Building. She'll even be hosting a fashion show at this location on 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
"It's a great opportunity," Mohamed said. "My mission is really to bring some of my fashion community into St. Paul, being my hometown. I want to bring people back into my city and show them how we really welcome folks from different cities into ours."
Next door in the Treasure Island Center, the economic development firm 2043 SBC has opened an innovation lab through the program. On Wednesday, the space was buzzing with activity, as the Knight Foundation hosted a happy hour and networking event in the space.
"This space allows us to do gatherings ourselves," 2043 SBC Founder Jeff Aguy said. "This space allows us to bring people together from all over the country. We've had folks from 13 different states and 24 different cities right here in downtown St. Paul, a community we're so passionate about."
Although the program runs for six months, business owners can negotiate a longer-term lease.
Aguy said he plans to do just that.
"We've always been interested in being in downtown St. Paul. We're building a district downtown," he said. "This is a very important place for us."
The uptick in activity throughout downtown St. Paul has been noticeable.
Renaldo Cortez, an entrepreneur who opened a natural soaps store in the skyway two years ago, said he's "ecstatic" to see so many business owners getting more opportunities.
"People can see the hard work of people who create things, the opportunity to buy things. It brings traffic," he said. "It is amazing to see as people, as human beings, we are bouncing back from something so treacherous."
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