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Minneapolis building, nearly lost to arson in George Floyd protests, is being revived

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's been more than three years since the murder of George Floyd by police sparked massive protests in Minneapolis. Days of civil unrest caused millions of dollars in damages. Now several Black entrepreneurs are aiming to bring business owners of color back to one particularly hard hit part of the city. They're revitalizing a historic retail building that was nearly lost to arson. From Minnesota Public Radio, Matt Sepic reports.

MATT SEPIC, BYLINE: In the days after a white policeman kneeled on George Floyd's neck, killing the 46-year-old Black man, protests and civil disobedience gave way to three nights of rioting.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

SEPIC: Buildings along the commercial corridor of Lake Street, including the police station where former officer Derek Chauvin worked, were the arsonists' first targets. While they reduced many buildings to rubble, one century-old landmark still stands. Taylor Smrikarova, with the nonprofit developer Redesign Inc., says the Coliseum building, originally a department store with a third-floor ballroom, is ripe for revival.

TAYLOR SMRIKAROVA: Its location on Lake and proximity to all the activity in 2020 and the size of the building meant the opportunity for community to come back and reclaim it and fill it with new uses just could not be missed.

SEPIC: Smrikarova is among a group of Black entrepreneurs who bought the property in 2021 to save it from the wrecking ball. Inside, the smell of soot and mold is fading as workers clean up debris, repair extensive smoke and water damage and replace melted metal window frames. Janice Downing, another investor, plans to move her management consultancy there. She says the project's main purpose is to provide affordable retail office and restaurant space to business owners of color and Indigenous entrepreneurs who were forced out of the neighborhood.

JANICE DOWNING: This can be the place where people come and hang out, meet, work, gather. It is a place where people can say, that didn't get taken away. It's restored, and it's ours.

SEPIC: While Target and other deep-pocketed chain retailers on Lake Street bounced back quickly, many small businesses left altogether. Mama Safia's, a Somali American restaurant, is moving back to the Coliseum building's ground floor after three years down the street in temporary space, at least with the help of a crowdfunding campaign. Its neighbor will be Du Nord Social Spirits. Among the nation's first Black-owned distillery, other tenants include a barbershop and a nail salon.

Downing says it was tricky to pull together the $29 million for the project, in part because some lenders were skeptical that leasing out low-cost, move-in ready space to small businesses would prove financially viable. Loans and grants are part of the funding mix, so are historic preservation tax credits. Project architect Alicia Belton says that means that workers can't just gut the place. They have to save the building's original details, including the 1917 terrazzo floors.

ALICIA BELTON: From an architectural standpoint, this is the most difficult project I've ever worked on. So everything that I thought I knew working with the historic tax credit rules has been really challenging. But I think that the end result will be beautiful.

SEPIC: The women leading this project are finding that beauty in unexpected places, including a plaster wall that the fire sprinklers streaked with a pattern of soot. While others may have painted it over, development director Taylor Smrikarova says when the Coliseum building reopens next year, that wall will remain as a permanent reminder of the latest chapter in the building's history, one marked by the pain of violence and the promise of a new beginning.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in Minneapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF NILS FRAHM'S "AMBRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Matt Sepic