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Historian relates the history of retail on University Ave.

Posted on 07 February 2017 by Calvin

Midway Chamber of Commerce presentation explores past and present

Photos and article by MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN
University Avenue Retail 01The Midway Chamber of Commerce sponsors a lunch meeting of their economic development committee each month. As part of January’s meeting, local historian Brian McMahon (photo right) explained that “to understand the history of retail along University Ave., it helps to go back to when it all started.”

Imagine traveling back in time to the 1880’s, when the Midway neighborhood became home to the Minnesota Transfer Railway Company. The inspiration of railroad magnate James J. Hill, it served as a depository for almost all freight sent to the Twin Cities: lumber, coal, leather, horses, dry goods, anything that could be put on a train passed through here.

According to McMahon, “Railroad and industrial development worked together to help the neighborhood grow.” One example of this was Brooks Brothers Lumber, located for years at the corner of Prior and University avenues. Because of easy access to lumber coming off the trains and being sold at Brooks Brothers, a vast array of manufacturing soon sprang up along University Ave. – giving rise to the neighborhood motto, “We make it here.”

Much of the identity of the Midway area has been shaped by business leaders and residents who came together in 1919 to form the Midway Club, the predecessor of the Midway Chamber of Commerce. According to the chamber’s website, “The club was instrumental in attracting new business to the Midway, improving transportation systems, and obtaining street lights to run the length of University Ave.”

With commercial development, railroad transportation, and the growth of the streetcar system, retail in the Midway area was well on its way.

Fast-forward to the present, past years of entrepreneurship involving the changing population of University Avenue’s merchants and customers.

University Avenue Retail 06Dr. Bruce Corrie (photo left), the next presenter at the chamber event, is a professor of economics and dean of the College of Business and Organizational Leadership at Concordia University in St. Paul. A native of India, Corrie has devoted years to researching the economic contributions of African, Latino, Asian, and Native American (ALANA) communities locally and nationally.

“When I came to Minnesota,” Corrie said, “one of the things I noticed right away was that minorities and immigrants were perceived according to a ‘deficit model.’ They were viewed according to what they were taking, or what was being given to them, and not according to what they were bringing to the table.”

Corrie developed a concept he called ethnic capital, in which members of the ALANA community are seen as entrepreneurs, as employees and employers, as creators of trade networks. He estimated that “there are at least 300 ALANA businesses in the Midway area,” and asked, “How can we create a trickle-up economy? How can we all share in the changing prosperity?”

A third perspective was offered by long-time Furniture Barn owner Bobby Wilson, whose business is currently located at Snelling and University avenues. Furniture Barn is renovating the former Chevrolet Building at 1389 University Ave., and planning a late-winter move there.

”I’ve learned to say nightstand and chest of drawers in a few different languages,” Wilson shared. “I think about 75% of our customers come from somewhere other than Minnesota. I’ve tried to make my sales staff understand this—that it’s important for people to feel welcome in our store whether they’re speaking Hmong or Somali, English or Spanish.”

Wilson continued, “I have a passion for this community. I think we have the potential to be great like the Uptown neighborhood in Minneapolis—maybe even better. But because of the prevalence of on-line shopping, those of us who do own brick and mortar buildings have to be smart, or we’re just going to die. I bet you can even order a car online these days.”

The irony of the question wasn’t lost on a man who is rehabbing the old Chevrolet building, one of University Avenue’s preeminent businesses in the chapter of history when used cars ruled supreme in this retail corridor.

The history of retail on University Ave. has been one of resiliency and change.

The Midway Chamber of Commerce represents over 330 businesses and organizations. They are dedicated to building a stronger Midway by being a catalyst for economic development, connecting employers with resources to recruit and train a productive workforce, and helping their members grow their businesses.

Visit www.midwaychamber.com or contact executive director Chad Kulas at 651-646-2636 to learn more about the benefits of membership. They hold 5 to 6 events monthly in member businesses throughout the Midway.

Their Fourth Annual Economic Development Summit, “Driving Growth in the Midway: People, Place, Partnerships, and Prosperity,” will take place on Wed., Mar. 15 at the University of St. Thomas. The event will kick off with a St. Paul mayoral forum, and conclude with a keynote address by David Reiling, Sunrise Banks CEO.

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