U7 collaborative helps University Avenue businesses come through

Central Corridor Light Rail Transit promises to bring change to University Avenue businesses. In the short term, change doesn’t look good to small retailers already fighting through a recession. Construction will gobble up parking and disrupt access to storefronts.

Longer term, changes brought by the line will attract new development, residents and customers. Design around stations will encourage walk-in traffic, and the entire area should gain greater visibility in the region as it re-acquires its status as one of the metro area’s thriving commercial strips.

The small businesses along the Corridor today want to be around when that happens. And public officials want them there, because they will bring vitality to the street, offer jobs, retail and services within walking distance of neighborhoods, and contribute to high-density land use surrounding transit hubs.

Meanwhile, “The small businesses want to feel somebody cares what happens to them,” says Nieeta Presley, executive director of Aurora/St. Anthony Community Development Center. “By providing assistance so they can survive, thrive and grow, U7 makes it tangible that someone does care.”

Presley is co-chair of the University Avenue Business Preparation Collaborative — called U7 for its seven founding members. It’s a new approach to delivering the help already offered by the community development agency partners, which have overlapping University Avenue service areas. U7 was formed to work in a more coordinated and targeted fashion with small businesses along the corridor.

With the Neighborhood Development Center in the fiscal role, U7 has received grants from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative ($200,000), the St. Paul Foundation ($75,000) and the Bigelow Foundation ($50,000).

The funding allowed U7 in June to hire two small business consultants who work exclusively with Central Corridor business owners, one by one. Marilyn Porter works out of Aurora/St Anthony CDC and is shared with the Selby Area CDC. Sia Lo is based with the Greater Frogtown CDC and is shared with SPARC. Thus far, they have made contacts with about 30 businesses.

Entrepreneurs don’t always start out with technical, marketing and business development planning skills, but those activities will be critical for small businesses intent on keeping afloat in the next few years, says Presley.

“It’s really crucial to address the challenges now,” she says. “How can I make my business more attractive to a wider pool of customers? Does my business look inviting inside and out? Can I display products more effectively? How can I understand my lease? How could I better use accounting services?”

Already, clients of U7 have learned how to build a website, improved their branding and customer targeting, or spruced up their façade.

“If the front of your business looks closed down, customers will think it is,” says Presley.

In addition to getting free consulting services and classes, businesses may need working capital to help survive a period of diminished cash flow, to buy inventory and equipment or make leasehold improvements. U7 can help owners access financing of up to $25,000.

U7 does not address every potential small business challenge. It will coordinate with other efforts — such as the University Avenue Business Association’s focus on parking and construction mitigation, for example.

“Our focus is small business retention — how can we assist in its survival now and help it build what it needs to be sustainable,” says Presley.

University Avenue has gone through changes before. Landmark businesses — from International Harvester and Midway Chevrolet to Montgomery Ward and the Faust Theater — have gone, but new entrepreneurs have moved in, joining venerable survivors like Midway Books, Ax-Man Salvage, the Russian Tea House and Porky’s Drive-In.

These names reflect the diversity of the Avenue’s many small businesses and non-profits — Shalom Nathalie Hair Braiding, Tuan Auto Repair, Arnellia’s, Krua Thai, Ha Tien Oriental Market, Islamic DA’Wah Center and Eritrean Community Center of MN.

And, with the help of U7, they represent its future.

University Avenue Business Preparation Collaborative (U7) Members

  • Aurora / St. Anthony NDC
  • Greater Frogtown CDC
  • Hmong Central Coalition
  • Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers (MCCD)
  • Neighborhood Development Center
  • Selby Area CDC

Business owners interested in U7 services can contact:

Marilyn Porter 651-230-1020 marilyn@aurorastanthony.org
Sia Lo 651-789-7486 sia@greaterfrogtowncdc.org