By Maja Beckstrom
When Nancy St. Germaine started as real estate director at the Creative Enterprise Zones a year ago, her task seemed straightforward: Help the lively neighborhood around Raymond and University Avenues retain and create inexpensive workspaces for artists, entrepreneurs and small, nonprofit organizations.
Today, St. Germaine is witnessing progress for the CEZ, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that has adversely affected scores of businesses. The CEZ’s most recent victory is landing a 2020 Neighborhood STAR award from the City of St. Paul.
The $200,000 award, a first for the CEZ, will be distributed to local businesses for physical improvements, from new signs to energy efficient windows.
“Or maybe a business or restaurant needs to build a patio so they can have more outdoor seating,” she said. “The program will be instrumental in helping businesses to redesign for COVID.” Nearly 60 groups applied to the city for a 2020 STAR award and the CEZ was one of about 20 selected.
Meanwhile, St. Germaine has plenty of daily challenges. “We were starting to have conversations about how to create spaces that were affordable,” said St. Germaine, who stepped into the newly created role at the nonprofit CEZ in August 2019. “Businesses were ready to expand. Some were looking to purchase their first property. Then COVID put all that to a hard stop.”
The pandemic has forced struggling businesses to retrench and reassess their space needs. Musicians without gigs and potters without summer festival sales have retreated to home studios, St. Germaine said. Nonprofits with remote workers are downsizing.
“There’s more renegotiating of leases and tenants are less likely to want to renew their lease at all,” she said. The uncertainty means more tenants are going month-to-month.
St. Germaine’s background as a real estate agent, project manager and contractor—she owns Raven Construction Inc.—allow her to offer a range of technical assistance and innovative solutions. Youth Performance Company, for example, wanted to sublet unused space after it was forced to cancel in-person summer acting classes. St. Germaine hooked them up with Minnesota Media Arts, a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving old local documentaries and independent video programming.
“That turned out to be a great partnership for both of them,” she said.
St. Germaine is also laying groundwork for a long-term CEZ goal—neighborhood ownership of commercial property. “It’s development that is focused on communities rather than sustaining the pocketbook of a private investor,” she said.
St. Germaine was a project manager for the nonprofit developer Seward Redesign in Minneapolis and is now lending support to the CEZ’s ongoing effort to start something similar in St. Paul. Ideally, the CEZ would evolve into a nonprofit developer and building owner.
In the interim, the CEZ is collaborating with the Hamline Midway Coalition to drum up support and investors for a local real estate investment cooperative.
Maja Beckstrom, a St. Anthony Park resident, is journalist/freelance writer for the Bugle.