WILLMAR - The vision Sahra Gure and Abdirizak "Zack" Mahboub had for a former furniture store is taking shape as the newly opened Midtown Plaza in downtown Willmar.
The first two businesses have moved into the building at 313 Litchfield Ave. S.W. Several others have signed leases and are preparing to move.
The developer of the small shopping center in the former Erickson Furniture building is New Minnesota Realty of Willmar. Gure and Mahboub, a husband and wife team, own New Minnesota Realty and operate Midtown Plaza. They also own West Central Interpreting Services in Willmar.
The married couple acquired the building from the former owner about three years ago and have completed the first phase of improvements to the building. Erickson's closed about 13 years ago, and a magnetic components company owned it from 2007 until 2015.
In the first phase, the first floor of the building has been transformed into a small shopping center with a wide central hallway with small shops along each side. The Ain-U-Shams grocery store and Badane tailor have opened. A children's clothing shop, a barbershop and a bridal consultant/beauty supplies business will be moving in.
Some businesses are starting new, he said. The tailor was working out of his home before. The grocery store moved from a small downtown shop to a larger space in the plaza building. The grocery owner plans to open a deli, too.
Many of the businesses are operated by east African entrepreneurs, Mahboub said, but the plaza and its businesses are open to all customers.
"We want to be open to the whole community," Mahboub said. Their vision for their businesses is to help bring different parts of the community together, he added.
The previous owner had remodeled the second floor into office space with a reception area, conference room, kitchen and break room. Mahboub said they use some offices for their own businesses and will rent the others.
Tenants include a transportation company and a nonprofit called United Somali Clans of Willmar. More offices are available. "Any business that wants to locate here is welcome," he said.
Still to come in future phases will be a wedding/event center on the lower level, an elevator, and more business space on the second floor. Mahboub said they plan to develop a prayer room for the convenience of people living or working downtown.
Other work still planned is developing a main entrance off the rear parking lot and sprucing up the exterior.
Mahboub called Midtown Plaza the latest sign that Willmar's downtown area is thriving. Other signs are the mix of mainstream and ethnic businesses and plans for a new Kwik Trip store.
Mahboub said they are trying to honor the history of the furniture store. The first-floor tin ceiling is still there. Restroom doors have the old signs: "A special room for ladies" and "A special room for gentlemen." A large light fixture from the furniture store now hangs over a staircase.
Mahboub said he would like to frame historic photos from the furniture store to hang in the plaza's halls. He has exterior photos but has had trouble finding photos of the interior. He asked that people with photos of Erickson's contact him at 612-636-9533.
He said he plans to have an open house, possibly in March, and would like to honor former Erickson's employees. He hopes they will be pleased to see that the building is "still standing, still useful."