It has been a struggle for Vanessa Ellis to do laundry since rioters wrecked the Giant Wash laundromat on W. Broadway in Minneapolis four months ago.
She paid a relative $20 to take her to another coin-operated laundromat miles away, but she hated the hassle. Every day, she would walk over to the Giant Wash to see if it had reopened yet.
Her persistence finally paid off last week, when she trudged through the door with two plastic bags bulging with dirty clothes. As she loaded five washing machines, Ellis thanked the attendant for bringing back an essential service for many low-income residents in the north Minneapolis neighborhood.
“I love it,” said a beaming Ellis, 60, who lives two blocks away and subsists on a disability income related to heart problems. “I’m going to be here all of the time. I’ll be glad when Walgreens and Family Dollar finally open again.”
The return of Giant Wash, which cost $300,000, is one of many bright spots on this gritty urban thoroughfare, which was hit hard during protests following the death of George Floyd in May. So far, more than half of the 51 businesses that were looted or ransacked during the riots have reopened their doors, and construction is moving forward on another eight storefronts. A new clothing store has even moved into one of the spaces damaged during the unrest.
But merchants said the recovery of West Broadway is going to take a lot more time. Some longtime tenants, including O’Reilly Auto Parts, are not coming back. Many business owners are concerned about security, saying fears about rising crime makes it harder to draw customers to their stores and restaurants.
“I have seen less police presence along the Broadway Avenue corridor, which is disconcerting to me,” said Tim Baylor, who owns the McDonald’s restaurant at 916 W. Broadway. “There is a lot more loitering, and with that comes crime and drug-related issues that need to be addressed.”
City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents the West Broadway neighborhood, said the problems plaguing the avenue have been around for years but have now been amplified by the pandemic and widespread property destruction.
“That’s a lot to overcome,” said Ellison, one of the city’s chief proponents of dismantling the Police Department. “If we want to have a truly safe corridor, we have to develop methods for preventing crime. We’ve got to make sure that businesses can thrive.”
Damage less visible
Unlike the Lake Street corridor, where hundreds of storefronts remain barricaded and property owners complain of living in a war zone, West Broadway doesn’t look much different from before the riots.
Most of the damage along this 25-block stretch of Minneapolis took place inside stores and restaurants, where looters smashed whatever they couldn’t steal. Fires were set in many stores, including Cub Foods, but the city was able to bring most of the blazes under control. Five businesses were destroyed, including O’Reilly Auto Parts, Flora’s Hair Design and the Fade Factory Barber Shop.
Flora Westbrooks said she doesn’t have the $400,000 it will take to rebuild her hair salon and an adjoining restaurant because she let her insurance policy lapse before the riots due to pandemic-related financial pressures. Fade Factory owner Ray James, who has $230,000 in insurance, said he’s not sure he has enough money to clear the debris from his lot and rebuild.
“I want to reopen, but I don’t want to spend a third of my insurance money just getting the stuff out,” James said.
Mark Merz, a vice president with O’Reilly, said the company decided against reopening after discussing the situation with the property owner and reviewing the terms of its lease, which expires soon. He declined to elaborate. Altogether, three O’Reilly locations were destroyed in the Twin Cities.
Other merchants who sustained damage during the riots said they never thought about pulling out of the neighborhood. For many, the big question was how long it would take to remodel and restock.
“Our thought all along was that a grocery store is the centerpoint of a community, and the sooner we could open our store the sooner the community could return to normal,” said Mike Stigers, CEO of Cub Foods.
Stigers said the store, which was hit by three separate fires, is undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation. The store reopened in July, but about half of the space is walled off while renovations continue in the section of the store devoted to fresh foods. Cub expects the full store to be operational by the end of November.
U.S. Bank is also easing its way back into the neighborhood. With reconstruction of its heavily damaged building expected to last through next summer, the bank has been deploying a mobile branch three days a week in the parking lot.
“Our plan is to rebuild a more modern branch that reflects how people bank today,” U.S. Bank spokesman Jeff Shelman said.
Tony Cohen, property manager at Broadway Center, said all 17 of his retailing tenants are returning to the strip center, including Walgreens, Rainbow Shops and Dollar General.
Cohen said the center is spending about $2 million on repairs to address damage caused by multiple fires. He said all of the stores should reopen by the end of the year except Walgreens, which will probably take an extra month or two.
Cohen said the biggest challenge now is finding police willing to work off-duty patrols at the center. Though he is offering as much as $65 per hour, Cohen said he can’t find any officers willing to take the shifts, a sharp contrast to before the riots.
“I just don’t think they’re willing to put themselves in any extra danger right now,” Cohen said.
Safety concerns remain
Every day, young men congregate in the parking lots along W. Broadway. They shoot dice, drink alcohol out of paper bags and occasionally harass customers trying to walk into a store.
Stuart Tapper, whose parking lot at Merwin Liquors is a frequent destination for loiterers, said the crowds scare off some customers. Of Merwin’s eight locations, Tapper said, the W. Broadway outlet is the only one where sales have not increased this year. Instead, Tapper said, revenue since reopening in July is down “significantly.” He said he even had trouble getting some subcontractors to come to the store to help remodel the store after the riots because they didn’t “feel safe.”
“Unfortunately, I think everyone is uneasy about what is going on in the area,” said Tapper, co-owner of the company. “There is still a lot of healing that has to be done.”
Daryl Johnson, owner of the Giant Wash laundromat, said he briefly considered closing the store after the riots. But he said his anger quickly faded, replaced with an urgency to reopen. Johnson said this year’s remodel came on top of a $500,000 renovation in 2015 that resulted in 40 new washing machines and 63 new dryers.
To make the laundromat more kid-friendly, and promote education in the community, Johnson is building a mini-library with a child-sized table and chairs.
“We want to give the kids something to do while they’re here, but we also want books to go home with the children,” Johnson said.
Dwayne Nabors is trying to raise $15,000 to put a tutoring center in the ground floor of Broadway Vibe, the upscale clothing store he opened this month in a former dental office on W. Broadway.
Nabors, who invested $50,000 in the store, said he signed the lease in July, two months after the riots. His small store features $50 jeans, $30 T-shirts and two security guards.
“I want to make sure this is a safe place for our workers and for the people who come in our store,” said Nabors, who grew up in north Minneapolis.
“We are trying to provide a climate that people can feel good about, that says this community is not dead.”