Block E tenants looking to reverse stigma of failure

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August 3, 2009
By: Jake Weyer
Jake Weyer
The entertainment complex’s tenants are organizing a fall block party to bring people to the area and give businesses a boost

Block E tenants bent on reversing perceptions of failing businesses and crime at their center are organizing a fall indoor block party to draw traffic to the area and showcase successes.

The idea comes shortly after the closure of Italian restaurant Bellanotte, which was a large tenant in Block E at roughly 10,000 square feet. The center is also still without a replacement for Borders bookstore, which took up roughly 24,000 square feet in the center before closing more than a year ago. Gameworks, which occupies more than 34,000 square feet at 7th Street and Hennepin Avenue, was looking earlier this year to sublease all or part of its space.

But lead block party organizer Brittany Garcia, director of sales and marketing for Gameworks, said the business isn’t going anywhere yet and neither are the building’s other tenants. She said business is up at Gameworks compared to last year and other tenants are also performing well — but things could be better.   

“Once people realize that this is a really great, fun place to come, it’s safe and there are a lot of good tenants here … once people start realizing that more I think Block E will do a lot better,” Garcia said.

The block party, set for Sept. 24, is planned to be an all-day event featuring live music, food, giveaways from Block E tenants and prizes including a year of free parking at the center. Block E tenants are partnering with Heading Home Hennepin and the Make-A-Wish Foundation for the event.  

 Garcia said the plan originally was to block off a road and have the party outside, but that changed because of concerns about nearby construction and congestion.  

Joe Wilkie, sales and marketing manager for Block E bar and restaurant Shout House Dueling Pianos, said all of the center’s tenants have been working on the event as a team. He said business is solid at the Shout House and the recent loss of Bellanotte hasn’t changed that.  

“We’re sad to see Bellanotte go, but they’re not really a competitive demographic,” he said. “They were a friendly neighbor and it’s sad to see that maybe that segment’s hurting at this time.”

Wilkie said filling the center’s empty spaces with destination businesses should help ensure the center’s success.

Erik Forsberg, owner of The Ugly Mug at 106 N. 3rd Street, said a successful Block E helps out everyone Downtown, including his business. The block party is a start, he said.

“We used to have the Mill City Music Festival before Block E was built, where we had both parking lots,” Forsberg said. “We had a lot more of the Downtown music festivals, a lot more things going on that drew people to Downtown and it was after Block E was built that a lot of that disappeared.”  

But he said Block E has a lot to overcome. Its two largest drawbacks, he said, are accessibility and safety.

Insp. Janeé Harteau, who oversees the Minneapolis Police Department’s 1st Precinct, said Block E is much safer than most people realize, especially since the addition of a police substation nearby. Violent crime is down and arrests are up, she said. The addition of clean and safe ambassadors from the recently formed Downtown Improvement District has also helped, she said.

“But the reality of it is, it’s going to take time to overcome a stigma,” Harteau said.

Vacant spaces only add to the stigma, Harteau said, and she can’t do much about that.

Andrea Christensen, a Downtown leasing agent with Colliers Turley Martin Tucker, said the biggest challenge in filling the Block E vacancies is their size.

“If I was representing a tenant, I don’t ever like to see them over 5,000 square feet — 7,000 maybe,” she said. “If I had a client who wanted to open up anything over 8,000 I would say don’t do it.”

That’s unless the concept was very compelling, she said.

The problem with all the space is that tenants have to pay rent for all that square footage along with the wages of their staff whether they’re busy or not. During Target Center events, that’s easy, but it’s the gaps between that hurt, especially if managers don’t staff accordingly, Christenson said. She noted that the new Twins ballpark should help.

“You’re going to see a huge renaissance,” Christenson said. “This is a blip. It’ll get worked out.”

Dario Anselmo, president of the Warehouse District Business Association, which represents businesses in the area, said the mix of family-friendly businesses and nightclubs in Block E just hasn’t worked. Finding more compatible businesses should help the center and the surrounding area, he said.

“I think they’ve seen their low, and if they can get a good mix [of businesses], that’s going to be the key thing,” Anselmo said. “What that mix is, I don’t know. My theory is not more nightclubs, maybe some more business services that play to the people that are down here.”

Garcia, of Gameworks, said at the moment Block E could use more support of what it has, which she thinks is much better than people give it credit for. Details of the block party are still being worked out, but the event should be finalized by the start of September.

“We just want people to come down and check out Block E and have a really good experience,” Garcia said.    

Elizabeth Sias contributed to this report.