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Zombie corner store rekindles debate over crime and the future of St. Paul’s Stryker Avenue

After being condemned for much of this year, the store has begun trying to reopen. But one big obstacle remains.

The shuttered Stryker Market
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

The shuttered corner store on Stryker Avenue, in the heart of St. Paul’s West Side, offers an unassuming facade to the street. When I was a kid, I remember the store being a 7-Eleven, home of the Slurpee, and we’d drive past it occasionally on the way downtown. But that was a long time ago, and for at least the past five years the corner store, set back behind a parking lot, has been called Stryker Market or West Side Groceries.

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The humdrum architecture hides a roller coaster of crime and insanity as, for years, the market has been at the center of nuisance in the neighborhood. The rap sheet is straight out of an HBO script: One owner, after years of running a food-stamp fraud racket, skipped bail and bought a beachside bar in Belize. He was eventually tracked down and returned to Minnesota by U.S. marshals after trying to kidnap one of his customers. Another owner infamously attacked a customer with a machete after the person refused to pay the tax on a juice drink. And those are just the newsworthy cases. For years, neighbors have reported drug dealing in the parking lot, and I’ve heard many stories of strange threats inside the market, not to mention trash or noise complaints.

In unfancy neighborhoods, corner stores often get a bad rep, becoming lightning rods for pent-up frustration. And yet these unassuming stores are often the only walkable places open at reasonable hours, the only places where transit-dependent people can go to find basic needs like milk, eggs or cat food. As they struggle with the perception of crime (to say the very least), corner stores wind up walking a fine line for wary neighbors.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
The stairway at Cup Foods

To experience one of my favorite Twin Cities’ corner stores, head to Cup Foods on Chicago Avenue and South 38th Street. Though some people in the neighborhood are quick to complain about the store attracting crime (scroll down on that story to see some comments), at the same time Cup Foods — its rather hilarious name, one-letter away from a famous chain — offers a wide array of products and serves a segment of the neighborhood that is often abandoned by more high-end trends. It’s worth pointing out that, along with restaurants, these stores are some of the few businesses in the entire Twin Cities often owned and operated by people of color.

Still, if there is line separating good and bad corner stores, Stryker Market has surely crossed it over the years. After being condemned for much of 2016, lately the store has begun trying to reopen. But a crafty city ordinance might make sure that the history of neighborhood nuisance doesn’t keep repeating itself.

A half-vacant Stryker Avenue

These days, the West Side’s Stryker Avenue is struggling. A few years ago, the hundred-year-old Czech bakery closed up shop for good, and while there are a couple remaining neighborhood anchors, like Shadey’s Bar, a laundromat, and an off-brand ice cream shop named Icy Cup, the old streetcar street is largely lined with marginal or closed businesses. The West Side neighborhood group has spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to do, and there are no easy answers.

“We’ve tried to be active with the results of the Stryker corridor study, but there’s no catalyst right now,” Krysten Lynn Ryba-Tures told me. She’s a board member for the West Side Community Organization, and involved in trying to boost economic development on the street.

“A lot of those buildings were really cheap following the recession and some folks who wanted to get into the development game snapped them up. But [they] didn’t really have a plan, or a lot of dollars, to get code issues taken care of,” Ryba-Tures explained.

For example, Carol Harder has been running a community garden on Stryker for the last few years — a matrix of planter boxes thriving on city-owned vacant land next to the market building. She has an open mind about the market reopening, and views the last few years as a mixed bag.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
A musician playing at the weekly farmers market in the Icy Cup parking lot on Stryker Avenue.

“I had thought that the whole property would be sold, but that’s not going to happen now,” Harder said. “I’m surprised that it’s not even open yet, because they’ve had a license for quite a while. I’ve talked to the owner for a couple of times and he was very much excited about the idea of opening the market up.”

Reopening the market is easier said than done. While it has been granted a grocery license, the more lucrative tobacco license remains a sticking point. And that obstacle is by design. Back in 2014, the area City Council member, Dave Thune, helped the city craft rules specifically aimed at ensuring that problem stores cannot keep coming back to life.

The ordinance limits tobacco licenses for stores according to location, aiming squarely at problem properties like Stryker Market:

No license may be issued pursuant to this chapter for a location or place of sale if a tobacco license previously issued for that location or place of sale has been revoked for any reason other than nonpayment of license fees within the past five (5) years,

— From the Saint Paul City code, Section 324.01(d)

The new rules make it much harder for applicants to receive permission to sell tobacco, if they have been previously shut down or cited by the city.

Part of the reason for the new rule change was the shift, three years ago, in the city’s inspection regime. Until that point, St. Paul had done its own food inspections and issued city permits for things like groceries, restaurants, and convenience stores. But after a well-publicized report citing dereliction of duty, the state forcibly took over control of inspections. That left the city unable to carefully regulate licenses, and the new ordinance was written to allow for more fine-grained flexibility for granting permits in cases like these.

“This is the first time that this ordinance is really being tried out,” explained Rebecca Noecker, who represents the neighborhood on the City Council these days. “It was basically written to prevent this kind of thing from happening, where we have a problem property in the past that basically squeezes in between the difference between licenses. But the tobacco license is still under our control and usually that’s the main source of revenue from these places.”

According to Noecker, city staff in the Department of Safety and Inspections are currently looking at the track records of the building owners’ other properties to see if they comply with the terms of the ordinance. If the owner has been cited in the past, the license would then come up for a vote before the City Council, and would require a supermajority to gain approval.

“They’re required to do this really thorough investigation into all the properties [the building owner] has owned in the last five years,” Noecker said. “If there’s any sign of problem properties not being up to code, the ordinance is written such a way that the default action going to council is to not reissue a license. The burden of proof is on the owner.”

Without a clean sheet, and with vociferous opposition from the neighbors, Stryker Market faces long odds of reopening with a cigarette vending permit. And yet, because the state inspectors have a different routine, the new market has already been permitted for grocery sales. Technically it could open up anytime, though the building currently sits in limbo.

“I’m just going to wait and see,” said Harder, the community gardener. For the past few weeks, she’s been busy shutting down the beds, and planning for next year. By April, she’ll be busy sorting out the next crop of garden boxes and planting watermelon vines. Whether the market reopens or not, she’ll be tending plants, and Stryker Avenue will still be waiting for its renaissance.