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George Floyd Square business owners just want things back to normal

Every day at the intersection of 38th and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis, people can be seen walking to the memorial outside Cup Foods where George Floyd was murdered by police officers two years ago today. today.

They take photos or capture a video of their visit on their mobile phone. Others leave flowers, cards, paintings and other keepsakes. Some remain silent.

Renamed George Floyd Square, the intersection has become an internationally renowned site visited by people from all over the world.

But for people working at the roughly two dozen businesses around the intersection, it’s another day’s work. For some of the business owners there, there is a growing sense of being invisible and overlooked two years after the riots over Floyd’s murder caused more than $500 million in damage.

“We’re not the reason they come to the area,” said hairstylist Natasha Clemons, owner of Clemons Conscious Salon on Chicago Avenue, a few yards from the side of the memorial. “They come to see everything around us.”

Although they support the memorial and honor Floyd’s life, business owners say the city hasn’t done enough to make themselves and customers feel safe. They want an increased law enforcement presence and more attention to making the area business-friendly, such as expanding the intersection to accommodate more traffic and parking. And they would like to see a plan in action rather than just on paper.

The city said it is committed to helping businesses survive and has a plan to redo the area.

“Every business in this intersection is still struggling,” said Erik Hansen, director of economic policy and development for the city of Minneapolis. “We will continue to participate to see how we can bring resources to this intersection.”

To help struggling businesses at the intersection, last April the Minneapolis City Council voted to approve a one-time repayable loan program. The loans, canceled if spent within the year for business expenses, are $50,000 each. Thirty loans were granted for a total of $1.5 million.

Some businesses, like Dragon Wok, closed despite the $50,000 loan. Cup Foods was also a recipient. Calls to the company were not returned. A market employee had called the police about Floyd because of a possible counterfeit $20 bill.

The Clemons Salon and Mill City Autobody were also among the recipients.

The past two years have been particularly difficult for the owner of Mill City Autobody on Chicago Avenue, one of the oldest businesses near the intersection. The owner, who asked not to be identified as his case remains unsolved, was attacked in his store and seriously injured.

Although her attacker is in custody, the altercation has left him uneasy about keeping his belongings there.

“When I get here in the morning, I don’t know if I’m going home,” the owner said.

Safety concerns are added to his professional concerns. He was already dealing with downturns from COVID-19 when Floyd was murdered. After the riots—and with the square so close to the store—he had fewer customers. Some of its mechanics, concerned for their own safety, also quit.

“I need things to get back to normal,” he said.

Clemons used the loan to pay rent for her salon, which she opened in June 2020 on Chicago Avenue, just two doors down from Cup Foods.

Clemons signed a multi-year lease a month before Floyd’s murder and, in the weeks that followed, invested time and money into renovating the space.

When Floyd was murdered, Clemons did not consider finding a new location. The lease-breaking fees would have been too high and she had appointments for the next two months.

“The whole city was on fire at the time, but being in that area was the safest place in town,” she said.

Soon, however, customers were hesitant to come to the show plaza, Clemons said.

Criminal activity was on the rise in the area, recognized by Minneapolis police. Additionally, business was down due to the pandemic, lack of parking on Chicago Avenue, and an increase in people doing their own hair.

To stay open, the hair salon needs to triple its customer base, Clemons said. She uses vegan and cruelty-free products, which helps attract customers, but it’s not enough.

“Right now it’s not financially stable to continue as I am,” she said. “My business can’t thrive right now. I don’t know if it’s the location, or COVID, or what.”

Carmen Valdes, owner of Caval Servicios, a tax preparation service on 38th Street that primarily serves the Latino community, has also struggled with the dual challenges of the pandemic and rising crime.

COVID meant that many of his clients were unable to file their taxes in person. Additionally, bus service through George Floyd Square has since May 2020 been diverted around George Floyd Square, requiring many Valdes customers to walk several blocks to get to his office.

Valdes said the increase in criminal activity has also affected his business. She used to keep her office open until 10 p.m., but now closes at 6 p.m.

“I came to south Minneapolis in 1999,” Valdes said. “It was a very calm and pleasant place. I liked it. I still like it. But lately it has been difficult for me and my clients.”

Since 2018, her income has dropped about 40%, she said. During this period, she reduced her expenses, in particular by eliminating assistant positions. The forgivable loan helped, but Valdes said she fears the current economic conditions will lead to more financial problems.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with the economy next year,” she said. “Maybe a recession is coming? I’m worried about that.”

Dwight Alexander, owner of Smoke in the Pit, and Sam Willis, owner of Just Turkey on Chicago Avenue, say immediately managing traffic around the memorial would increase patron activity. Both companies received the forgivable loans.

The concrete barricades that still surround the sculptures, paintings and other objects at the memorial site have impeded the flow of customers for the past two years and made it difficult for delivery trucks to drop off supplies, Alexander said.

The former Speedway gas station on 38th Street, emptied during the riots, is now covered in murals and has been renamed “People’s Way” by activists. According to city updates, officials spoke with the owner last year and are reconnecting with them this spring with the intention of evaluating options to eventually purchase the site.

Alexander respects the significance of the site, but wants the city to at least make it look presentable.

“Why does it still look like a war zone? ” he said.

Like Alexander, Willis said the city should work to make the site more presentable as parts of Uptown, downtown Minneapolis or Lake Street.

“It feels like a third world country sometimes when you come here,” he said. “If it’s a memorial that the world can see, wouldn’t you want it to be attractive?”

Yet many business owners say they don’t give up.

“We own this,” said Alexander, whose family barbecue restaurant has been on Chicago Avenue for 20 years. “I’m here for the long haul.”

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