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Imagineering for Central Avenue

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The City of Minneapolis has an array of programs aimed at invigorating weak commercial districts. Central Avenue—mostly within the 55418—has been awarded its second subsidy under one of these initiatives, The Great Streets Program:

In 2007, the Minneapolis City Council approved the Great Streets Neighborhood Business District program, a coordinated effort to help businesses develop and succeed along commercial corridors and at commercial nodes throughout the city.

City resources are available for business loans, real estate development gap financing, and business district assistance such as façade improvement programs, market studies, and retail recruitment efforts.

The first grant was wasted spent on a brochure/map highlighting a handful of Central Avenue businesses, and on sprucing up a few storefronts. As far as I can tell the brochure never got into the hands of anyone who didn’t already know about “Northeast’s Main Street”. And if some storefronts were improved, it is hard to pick them out of the third world clutter that defines this once-vibrant commercial corridor.

The second grant is less ambitious, “$10,000 for outreach to businesses, referral to technical assistance services.”

And that’s to be spread among several Northeast commercial nodes, not just Central Avenue.

The money, in effect, goes to keep non-profits funded and to give community organizers a taste of the sugar doled out by City Hall. It’s an indirect kind of politcal patronage. Helping real, viable businesses is more the justification than the outcome.

But within the realm of façade improvements, perhaps the City should adopt this idea from the U.K.:

One town in England is taking a novel approach to the scores of closed-up shops on its main street: they’re putting up fake business fronts to make the shopping areas seem less deserted.

The council hopes this bit of imagination-boost will help potential tenants to envision the possibilities of the space. It’s a powerful image that would certainly inspire business owners more than an empty, desolate retail space ever could. The council plans to put up more fake shopfronts to support commercial areas in several towns. At around £1500 per shop, it’s a quick, inexpensive and completely reversible way to spruce up a deserted-looking shopping center.

Kind of like real estate agents staging a house for sale, if an area looks like a nice place to be, people with real money to spend might actually decide to spend some time there.

Central Avenue suffers a large number of vacant storefronts. Most of what is active caters to immigrant populations with little discretionary income. It exhibits the sort of decay that urban politicians, planners and hipsters love. But, as much as they claim to enjoy the genuine urban atmosphere, the sidewalks are empty when the business day ends.

Who knows if false façades would fool the hipsters? They may be gullible. They did re-elect the people behind the Great Streets program, after all.