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Grand Avenue Looks for its Due Attention

St. Paul’s Grand Avenue has long been the city’s leading hospitality district, with its bar/restaurants, cafés and shopping. A longstanding St. Paul date night ritual has been dining and shopping, in areas including Grand and Dale, Victoria Crossing, Grand and Lexington and the Mac Market area near Macalester College.

As ways of shopping and dining evolve, some Grand Avenue hospitality veterans have also looked at change. In January the Kenefick family, longtime owners of the building housing the Emmett’s/Dixie’s on Grand/Saji-Ya restaurant complex at 695 Grand Ave., proposed a change of their own. They suggested replacing what was once a grocery store with a mixed-used building that could be up to five stories tall. The building would have had underground and possibly first-floor parking, space for the restaurants and new retail space, with apartments above. One idea floated was for senior housing.

More than 90 people packed into Dixie’s to hear the plans, which development planners said included ideas drawn from two city-approved plans intended to guide development on East Grand and limit new building heights and footprints. But a largely negative reaction prompted the family to shelve the idea the next day.  

The Keneficks’ St. Albans Partners and Real Estate have been involved with the Grand Avenue property for about 35 years. It has evolved into a complex with three restaurants owned by the Monkey Boys group. “Our connection to this neighborhood is deep and it is long,” Peter Kenefick said. While the restaurants are doing well, Peter Kenefick said he and his family need to look at the future and how to best take care of family interests.

He spoke of changes to Grand itself and how new development could help turn things around. “We’ve watched businesses drift away,” Kenefick said. The development would have brought in small-scale, local retailers to operate besides the restaurants.

Kenefick and longtime business partner John Wolf emphasized that they and other Grand business owners believe more promotion and attention by the city goes to hospitality districts,  including a resurgent downtown and West 7th/Seven Corners communities. “We do compete with other areas and it feels like Grand gets left behind,” Wolf said.

Shifts in the St. Paul hospitality industry are a big concern they cited. With the explosive growth in the downtown and West 7th restaurant and bar communities, “people are stealing business away from us,” said Kenefick. 

Other issues are driving the possibility of change. One is the likelihood of an increase to a $15 minimum wage with no tip credit in St. Paul. That could affect all restaurants in the city where employees receive tips. A continuing trend of rising property taxes is another red flag. The Keneficks’ property has seen property tax increases of 7 to 9-plus percent every year for the past several years. 

East Grand Avenue’s hospitality community is changing. Some business owners, including the Quinn family behind Café Latte, do see a change in emphasis. Nancy Blumel of Café Latte said the owners feel more attention is placed on hospitality districts other than Grand.

Other business owners contacted said they see Grand not getting promotional attention from groups like Visit St. Paul. Instead, in some cases it’s a function of where events are, such as Palace theater, RiverCentre and Xcel Energy Center events, Red Bull Crashed ice and St. Patrick’s Day. Grand has Grand Old Days every June but that is facing more competition.

Another is the growth of other areas with bars and restaurants.

But some point out that not all changes are bad. Longtime restaurant Barbary Fig closed in 2016 and was torn down. It is being replaced with a new Coconut Thai restaurant, which has lined up most of its needed city approvals to start construction.

After two decades the Wild Onion is shutting its doors at the end of March. Luke Shimp’s Red Rabbit will take over the space, turning what was an American fare bar/restaurant for a largely college crowd into a rustic Italian-style restaurant that will open this summer. Red Rabbit and Coconut Thai are hailed as signs of a resurgence.

 “There is no doubt more competition between businesses both inside and outside of St.  Paul today,” said Terry Mattson, president and CEO of Visit St. Paul and RiverCentre. “There was probably a time and place when Grand was perceived as the only place for foodies and retail but that’s shifted as the city develops into the future. Our staff invests a lot of sweat equity into all of the city’s neighborhoods but there aren’t any more dollars going into one over the other. More than ever these neighborhoods seem to be coming up with their own creative ways to stand out, as well.”

Mattson said Visit St. Paul does a great job marketing all neighborhoods as well as RiverCentre. “The Grand Avenue business district is a wonderful asset and we are very lucky it is here.”  

Grand Avenue Business Association Director Connie Delage said Grand Avenue’s hospitality community gets the same level of attention other areas do and works frequently with the organization. “Visit St. Paul is a great partner to Grand Avenue … Recently we were featured in the Minnesota Food Guide that was distributed to media for the Super Bowl.” 

A member of the neighborhood district council, Summit Hill Association, said changing tastes and how people spend their entertainment dollars are factors in Grand Avenue’s success. Committee members said the fact that new restaurants keep coming to Grand is a positive sign. “We want our businesses to succeed,” said Lori Brostrom, who chairs the council’s Zoning and Land Use Committee. “But there is much more competition around the city, in terms of events and dining options.” 

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