By Caroline Cummings

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Small business owners who saw their storefronts burned and looted during last summer’s civil unrest made a passionate plea to lawmakers Tuesday for more state aid for recovery.

A Minnesota House committee heard testimony on a bill that would provide $300 million in appropriation bonds — $100 million to St. Paul and $200 million to Minneapolis — for redevelopment aid, as businesses are still reeling from destruction. The proposal advanced on a party line vote with only DFL support.

Rob Yang, owner of Phenom, a boutique that sells footwear and clothing, told lawmakers that his two stores near the St. Paul Midway and the North Loop of Minneapolis suffered $100,000 in property damage, and another $400,000 in lost inventory not covered by insurance. He estimates his St. Paul store need $30,000 in additional repairs to get it to “prior-looting conditions.”

READ MORE: 2 Plead Guilty To Setting Fires In Target Headquarters During August Unrest In Downtown Minneapolis

He described himself as a “proud Hmong American Minnesotan” whose family fled Laos in the late 1970s for the United States and ultimately settled in the Twin Cities. He told the committee he witnessed the looting first hand, watching people smash windows and steal his merchandise. He said it was devastating to see.

“I was no more than 15 feet away from the entrance where I would regularly greet customers while complete strangers took their turns loading my American dream and 13 years of hard work,” he said.

(credit: CBS)

In an interview after the hearing with WCCO at his new location in Dinkytown, Yang described the moment “as one of the worst feelings I’ve had in my life,” not just because he was being robbed of his life’s work — he said he empathized with the pain of the Black community following George Floyd’s death.

“I remember seeing this Black teenager and he said, ‘Who cares if the cops come? We’re not going to live long anyway,’” Yang recalled. “When I looked at him, it just seemed like he had no hope.”

READ MORE: Fund For St. Paul Businesses Hurt By Unrest Still Has $800,000

Abe Demaaj, an Ethiopian immigrant who owns a 30-year-old furniture store that was damaged last summer, urgently petitioned Republicans and Democrats to work together to find a solution.

“I’m very emotional and I still feel like the city is burning down,” Demaaj said. “I’m begging you guys to come to the table and let’s rebuild this city together.”

Republicans on the committee, including Rep. Eric Lucero, did not vote for the bill, expressing apprehension about borrowing that amount of money for Minneapolis and St. Paul, whose officials they criticized for their response to the unrest.

“Unfortunately it’s a result of failed leadership of those cities,” said Rep. Lucero, R-Dayton. “I’m concerned that the bill essentially creates an open-ended fund for Minneapolis and St. Paul.”

Local city officials and economic groups all said there were unmet needs to fix damage since the scope of the destruction is so vast. One official compared the situation to Oklahoma City, after it rebuilt after the 1995 bombing.

READ MORE: Minneapolis Pawn Shop Owner Won’t Be Charged In Man’s Death During George Floyd Unrest

Erik Hansen, director of economic policy and development for Minneapolis, said the cost estimates are “north of $350 million” citywide with almost 22 million square feet of commercial space damaged in some way.

In St. Paul, Fire Chief Butch Inks testified that his department responded to 250 calls during the height of the unrest.

“To put that in perspective for everyone, that’s about six months’ worth of work in a 12-hour period,” Inks said.

Caroline Cummings