From the ashes a new sense of purpose on Lake Street

KB Balla lost his new business to the riots. Still, he’s determined to reinvest in the community.

KB Balla stands near what remains of Scores Sports Bar at 2713 E. Lake St. in Minneapolis. Photo by Hannah Black/Minnesota Reformer.

On May 29, KB Balla was working a shift as a firefighter in Brooklyn Center when a friend called with news: He’d just driven down East Lake Street in Minneapolis. That’s where Balla had recently opened his sports bar called Scores.

“He called me like, ‘Man, if you can make it out here, come check this out, this is crazy,’” Balla said.

Balla, a firefighter, small businessman, community volunteer and father of four, arrived to find the charred frame of 2713 E. Lake St. still burning. He’d dedicated many of his nights to renovating the bar, often working into the early morning hours. 

In the span of two days, all of that work had vanished. The bar, which had a soft open before COVID-19 shut it down in March, was not insured.

“To find out that the countless hours, hard work, late nights away from my kids, and family had all been for nothing was soul shattering,” Balla wrote in a GoFundMe post that day. “It is not the material things, more so the time that cannot be reclaimed.” 

Balla, whose sports bar was soon to be a shining example of Black entrepreneurialism on Lake Street, is not alone in having lost what cannot be regained. And thus far, businesses damaged by riots and looting have received no government funding. Gov. Tim Walz sought funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in early July but was rebuffed by the Trump administration. Minnesota House Democrats passed a bill that would have directed $300 million to these businesses, but the GOP-led Senate failed to produce matching legislation before a special legislative session ended Tuesday.

Community organizations and individuals have stepped up in the government’s absence. As of July 15, Lake Street Council had collected more than $8.8 million that it plans to distribute to small businesses rebuilding along Lake Street. The West Broadway Business and Area Coalition and the Northside Funders Group teamed up to raise more than $2.2 million for damaged businesses in North Minneapolis. 

Businesses have also launched their own fundraising campaigns. Balla created a GoFundMe on May 28, the day before Scores caught fire, to try and raise money to repair previous damage done by looters. The initial goal was $25,000, enough to replace broken glass and TVs and to clean paint from the floor.

Then, Thursday night of that fateful week, “Everything just went sideways,” Balla said in an interview. After the fire destroyed his business, he raised the GoFundMe’s goal amount to $100,000.

By the following Tuesday, he’d collected more than $1 million.

Rather than doing the expected and putting the money into his business, Balla’s first thought was to call Geoff Bullock, a pastor at Blue Oaks Church in Brooklyn Center. 

Balla and Bullock had teamed up a few years earlier to create Aerie MN, which aims to help young people in underserved communities clear some of the hurdles of starting a small business. Balla was familiar with these struggles after trying to open Scores — things like registering an LLC, setting up a business bank account and getting initial funding. 

KB Balla stands in front of his Lake Street sports bar Scores on May 28. The bar had been vandalized the night before. The night this photo was taken, Scores was burned to the ground. Photo by Hannah Black/Minnesota Reformer.

The amount of money Balla received gave everything weight. With his newfound resources and platform, he’s determined to invest in the Minneapolis community.

“I don’t want to be rich — I just want to be put in the position to help people,” he said.

Earlier this summer, Balla planned to host a free kid-centric event in the East Lake Street Target parking lot. It would have been Aerie MN’s official launch, and he also hoped it would be a day of fun for kids in Longfellow and surrounding neighborhoods.

But as the threat of COVID-19 continued, the plan shifted. Instead, organizers will hand out “swag bags” filled with summer activities for kids from 1-2 p.m. Saturday, July 25, at North Commons Park, Farview Park, Powderhorn Park and East Phillips Park.

Cathy Ladson, a member of Aerie’s board, called Balla “the heart and soul” of the nonprofit.

Even after the fire, “All that he’s ever wanted came together at one time,” she said.

An entrepreneur herself, Ladson said they want Aerie to help young people through the parts of starting a business that “took us forever” to figure out.

A new energy on Lake Street

Opening a sports bar was Balla’s dream, he said, and one he funded himself. Scores was ready when Walz began allowing bars to reopen in late May, but it’s just two blocks from Minneapolis’ 3rd Police Precinct, the now infamous center of the unrest and arson in the days after George Floyd’s killing.

The bar was to replace Ethiopian restaurant Addis Ababa inside a multi-tenant building that was also home to gastropub Town Talk Diner, Mexican restaurant and club El Nuevo Rodeo and a few other businesses. Nearly two months after it was destroyed by fire, piles of brick and splintered wood filled a hole in the ground that spanned a corner lot between East Lake Street and 27th Avenue. Wedged between a mass of twisted metal was a large rooftop HVAC unit, seemingly the only distinguishable item left. 

Nothing in the huge pile of scrap and shattered glass revealed that people once ate or danced there — or the months Balla spent preparing for his bar to open.

The owners of some damaged or destroyed businesses are hesitant to return to their previous spots because the city can’t guarantee a “certain degree of safety,” said Erik Hansen, Minneapolis’ director of economic policy and development.

Hansen said some business owners are worried about a potential second wave of violence and property damage following the upcoming trials of the four former Minneapolis Police officers accused of being responsible for Floyd’s death. Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill tentatively scheduled the trial to begin in March 2021.

Still, if he had his way, Balla would rebuild in the exact same spot in Longfellow. The morning after the initial damage, neighbors helped remove the remaining shards of glass from his window panes and then swept them up. Their selflessness affected Balla, who said he doesn’t believe anyone from the neighborhood is responsible for the damage.

“The community came together — all the support was just overwhelming,” he said. “So that’s why I feel like I have a tie in that community and I want to be part of the rebuilding process. It’s just that I don’t know how that’s going to play out.”

Rebuilding could take a year and millions more than Balla has to spend. He will likely choose one of the existing Minneapolis locations that he has toured in recent weeks. Many of them are not on Lake Street.

Tabitha Fischer, a business development specialist for the city of Minneapolis, met Balla in January when he visited her office to get help finding a location for Scores.

Fischer said she works with small business owners like Balla all the time, but that he stood out during their initial meeting because he had the right attitude, took notes and followed up on every suggestion.

“I just had a really good feeling for him and his energy and the amount of work he did on that particular space,” she said. “It was all a lot of sweat equity. I just had a good feeling about him.”

Balla and Fischer stayed in touch. After the bar was destroyed, Fischer offered to help Balla and his realtor scout out a new location.

Despite hesitation in some pockets of the city, Fischer said a “new energy” around businesses owned by people of color has encouraged many on Lake Street to return. She points to the Lake Street Council and individual businesses’ fundraising success as a sign that people are willing to invest.

“They want to return. They want to be part of this moment,” Fischer said. “There is community support and kind of a reawakening, or seeing the inequities that have been taking place and wanting to help change that.”

Nearly two months after Balla created the GoFundMe, donations continue to trickle in. He said he plans to reach out to every donor and thank them all personally. 

“That’s the biggest blessing I’ve ever got,” he said.