Minneapolis city councilmember Don Samuels calls them 'inconvenience' stores. Samuels, the chair of the city's public safety and regulatory services committee, also represents parts of north Minneapolis that contain several stores identified by the city as problem businesses.
One store, located on Lyndale Avenue north, was the site of 1,900 police calls in less than a two-year period. So, a little over a year ago, Samuels went to see for himself what was going on.
"I worked for eight hours at this store, stocking shelves and cleaning and kind of hanging around and I observed some interesting things," he says.
Samuels says he noticed the majority of the young men who came in to buy chips and soda were the same guys walking around outside the store. He suspected many of them were drug dealers who were using the store as a safe haven.
"They're walking around all day, pretending to be going somewhere, but always staying in the vicinity of this survival mechanism, called the convenience store," says Samuels. "Because it gives them a cover."
Samuels says in some cases drug dealers use the stores to hide their drugs from police officers. And in other cases, store owners are sometimes forced to allow drug transactions to occur within the store. Samuels says the activity in and around these stores scare away legitimate customers causes people who live nearby to move away.
The store where Samuels worked is on the list of problem businesses, but will remain open for now. However, another store with a similar profile is being shut down.
The Big Stop Foods store at 26th Ave. N. has consistently been the source of numerous complaints. Police records show that last year, there were more than 200 police calls to the store. The majority of the calls were for low-level offenses like narcotics or disturbing the peace. However, in 2004 the store was the site of a homicide. Earlier in March, two young men were shot and wounded near the store's parking lot.
The store's newest owner, Imad Alizairij, says Big Stop's history was news to him.
...The northside cannot tolerate niceness. You have to be tough and fair.Council-member Don Samuels
"I'm kind of like in the middle of a situation, I don't know what's going on," he says. "When I bought this store the landlord didn't tell me anything. And he got my money and the city, from the other side is telling me what to do and what to sell and what not to sell. And...I don't know what to do."
Alizairij, a 30-year-old native of Iraq, bought the store in January. He says he didn't know that the previous owner was supposed to make site improvements to help curb the criminal activity and beautify the property. The city says the improvements were supposed to be done last year. The city council approved revocation of the store's grocery licenses and blocked Alizairij from applying for a new license. Without those licenses, the store cannot do any business.
Alizairij says he's trying to make the improvements, but needs more time. He says he's doing a better job of shooing away the guys who hang out in front of his store.
"When they're on the property I tell them to leave and they listen," says Alizairij. "They leave and go across [the street] to the bus stop. And I have no control over that. I'm not a cop. The cop or the city is supposed to do that, not me."
Alizairij says he's already spent several thousand dollars for improvements inside the store. And he wonders why the city let him buy the store if they wanted it to close.
Don Samuels says he's sympathetic. But he wants the Big Stop to close and perhaps reopen as another business entirely -- something that can't be used as a cover for illegal activity. Samuels says he has to weigh the rights of one business owner against the rights of dozens of neighbors who are tired of the noise, trash and crime that surround the store.
"In fact I think the guy at Big Stop does try, but I think he's in over his head," says Samuels. "And I, as a council-member, have to decide if I'm going to be a nice guy. And quite frankly, the northside cannot tolerate niceness. You have to be tough and fair. Nice store owners won't help the community. Nice property owners won't help this community and nice councilmembers won't help this community."
Big Stop owner Imad Alizairij can appeal the decision and remain open if granted an injunction. However, he's talked to a lawyer who told him he didn't have a chance to beat city hall. In the absence of an appeal, the store will be forced to close its doors within a week.