Lowertown loses more businesses

Shortly after moving to Minnesota in 2017, my wife and I went to see a Saint Paul Saints game. Arriving early, we went for a walk around Lowertown. We loved its assortment of buildings and variety of places to eat and drink. We decided on the spot that we would move there.

This week, Lowertown is losing two of the places that made it so attractive to us back in 2017. The Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal reports:

Black Sheep Pizza has permanently closed its location in St. Paul after an 11-year run.

The coal-fired pizzeria posted the news of the shutdown on its Facebook page over the weekend, announcing the news in the form of a poem titled “Covid Bike Lanes and Shortages Oh My!”

The bike lane angle is presumably specific to the restaurant’s location, at the corner of 10th Street and Robert Street. The St. Paul City Council in 2020 approved the creation of a bikeway along 10th Street, over the objections of some businesses that the move would reduce parking. (The Star Tribune had a report at the time.)

And on Friday, Tin Whiskers, a craft brewery located in the same block as Black Sheep Pizza, will be tapping its last beers:

These two join a number of bars and restaurants to have packed up shop in Lowertown over the last few years. Yes, COVID-19 accounts for part of it: The Handsome Hog closed in June 2020, the Octo Fishbar in July 2020, and the Hat Trick Lounge in September 2020. But the closures of Black Sheep Pizza and Tin Whiskers along with the other recent closures of Stacked Deck Brewing (October 2021) and Black Dog Cafe (January 2022) show that the environment for small businesses in downtown St. Paul remains forbidding. And, to some degree, this environment pre-dates COVID-19: Biergarten Germania closed in July 2018, 12welve Eyes Brewing in June 2019, and World of Beer in July 2019; Elephant Bar closed in September 2019, only a few months after replacing Hygga.*

Each of these examples will have elements unique to it, bad management or legal troubles, for example. But this is always the case. In any healthy economy, there will always be some businesses going out of business, but they will be replaced by others coming into business and here it is much harder to find recent examples. The environment which is seeing so many businesses die in Lowertown is also seeing relatively few being born. Of those four businesses which closed pre-COVID-19, the premises of each of three remain vacant.

So what are the components of this environment? Specific to St. Paul, among the reasons given by Black Sheep are bike lanes, which are both expensive and completely useless. Other local government measures, such as the hike in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, have also been found to be harmful to businesses (and employees, too).

Another factor is crime and unpleasantness more generally. Me and a friend of mine were drinking outside Tin Whiskers one evening when we were approached by a disturbed gentleman who subjected us to a racist rant — he was white, as were both of us, making it as bizarre as it was offensive — and pulled a knife on us when we asked him to knock it off. On another occasion I was driving home from Target with my 9-month-old son when we pulled up at some traffic lights alongside a gentleman, stretched out on the pavement outside Union Depot in the midst of a drug overdose. I’m a Londoner. I know urban living. This ain’t it. We bailed on downtown shortly after.

When I think back to that beautiful night in May 2017, it is tragic to see the place now. There is so much potential in Lowertown — and in the Twin Cities more broadly — but it needs leadership which can unlock that.

*Many of the establishments which remain operate shortened hours.