St. Paul scrambles to fill storefronts before conventionby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
With the Republican National Convention only two months away, the city of St. Paul and local business leaders are scrambling to fill all of those empty downtown storefronts.
St. Paul has a downtown office vacancy rate of more than 20 percent, so they're trying to lure merchants from other parts of the city to set up temporary shops along the skyways and ground level storefronts, at least for the week of the convention.
The move is partly intended to make the city's core look more alive when the national spotlight shines on St. Paul the first week of September.
St. Paul, Minn. — It may seem like St. Paul is working too hard to stage a little excitement downtown.
But don't tell that to Susan Kimberly.
"I'm not trying to create an illusion," said Kimberly, vice president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.
"We're going to have a crowd here. And that crowd is going to be looking for things to do and things to buy, and we're going to have things ready for them," she said. "There's 45,000 people coming to town. That's like having a State Fair in downtown St. Paul. We're going to take advantage of that. That's what business people do."
In fact, the idea of making St. Paul more inviting to its out-of-town guests inspired the name of the project. It's called the "RNC Red Carpet Retail Initiative." Organizers like Matt Anfang say they want to welcome those delegates and journalists with an ample variety of stores and services.
"We want to give everyone an opportunity to walk past a storefront and look in a window and see something different, rather than a for-lease sign," said Anfang, president of the Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association.
The group is one of many organizations that are playing matchmaker between vacant storefronts and potential downtown business owners.
Anfang says the beauty of the plan is that mom-and-pop shops from University Avenue or Highland Park can test the waters of doing business downtown without having to sign a long-term lease. In fact, their lease can be as short as five days.
The businesses would also be able to take advantage of extra-low overhead costs. Anfang says property owners are willing to cut their rents by more than half.
"What's in it for the landlord goes beyond just a financial commitment. They have a personal commitment for their business and their buildings in the city of St. Paul," Anfang said. "It goes beyond collecting rent. It goes to (them) saying they want to put on the best face for St. Paul and roll out the red carpet."
So far, a task force has identified about 20 buildings with available space. The new tenants would be able to move in as early as August.
Volunteers with Anfang's group are talking to a chocolate shop, a sporting-goods store, a Minnesota souvenir shop and ethnic chambers of commerce. Anfang has even visited a huge Hmong market in Frogtown in hopes of attracting merchants who sell ethnic clothing and beadwork.
The idea is to bring the the vitality of St. Paul neighborhoods to a downtown with an image of shutting down after 5 p.m.
Ellen Muller, the city's economic development manager, has already begun re-imagining the vast office space in the Alliance Bank Center. Right now, it's a high-profile skyway spot with an entire wall of glass that reveals only emptiness.
"We actually envision in that space, the possibility of sort of a world market fair -- very small businesses who would come together as a collaborative to offer a variety of products and services and information, almost like an international bazaar," Muller said. "That's our hope."
Even if a retailer doesn't line up for a given space, Muller said Lowertown artists could put up artwork in the windows promoting their studios. Or, private colleges could fill the space with informational booths.
"Just a beautification piece would make the space feel welcome as you walk by, and not get that sense that there's nobody home," she said.
St. Paul's business leaders have reason to worry about downtown, but they're putting their heads together on how best to revitalize it.
For instance, it took nearly a year to find a new restaurant to go into the former Fhima's location. And the limp economy has made it difficult to find a large office tenant for a major riverfront project.
But retail seems to be the biggest concern. At a series of brainstorming meetings hosted by the chamber of commerce, many people expressed the need for more shops.
St. Paul's attempt to create indoor malls at the old World Trade Center and Town Square have failed. And many people believe that downtown needs more residents to attract such amenities as a grocery or a Target.
That's why business leaders are hoping for more than a temporary fix by attracting new retail for the convention. The goal is that some of those shops will stick around, long after September.
- All Things Considered, 06/27/2008, 4:50 p.m.