Pawn Broke

Neighbors say Pawn America will bring nothing but trouble. Strapped customers say it's their last resort. The City of Minneapolis just says no.

The man strode to the microphone. "Bear with me," he implored the members of the Minneapolis Planning Commission and their advisers, and he began to speak of his recent trip to Las Vegas. It seemed completely unrelated to the matter at hand--an application by the chain Pawn America Minnesota to open a pawnshop at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. But Zach Metoyer, who heads the business development wing of the Central Neighborhood Improvement Association, pressed on. He had been in a casino, where he spied a beautiful woman across the room. He stared at her, entranced, until someone informed him that she was a hooker. "A prostitute is a prostitute," Metoyer proclaimed, with a clumsy pause to accentuate the drama. "A pawnshop is a pawnshop--no matter how you change it."

This was just the beginning of the public comments about the Pawn America permit at that late-October commission meeting, and Metoyer's words cuttingly, concisely explained why 38th and Chicago neighbors were virulently opposed to allowing a pawnshop into the area. A pawnshop might increase burglaries and break-ins in Central, an already crime-ridden stretch of the city, they said. A pawnshop might give the addicts who regularly buy their drugs on that corner ready access to cash for their habit. A pawnshop might make it hard to woo more respectable businesses to that part of the south side; lower property values; increase gunfire; drive families away. For two months the neighbors had met and mustered support and written letters and passed around petitions with one motto in mind: Keep Pawn America Out. It all culminated at this October 25 meeting in the drafty city council chamber at Minneapolis City Hall, where at least two dozen people came to speak their minds and lend their support.

By the time the audience was called upon to speak, a city planner had already explained her reasons for recommending a denial of the permit (a last-minute change, since even the meeting agenda offered the city's staff recommendation to postpone the decision two more weeks until November 8). True, she said, the intersection was zoned to allow for a pawnshop, provided that the store had received what's known as a conditional-use permit--one that would allow such a business only if it met specific rules laid out in the zoning code. But having such an enterprise there would go against the city's comprehensive development plan (titled "Plan for the Eighties"), which proclaims that corner too small a retail strip for a pawnshop.

Moreover, a pawnshop there would not conform to the Minneapolis Plan, a document drafted to replace the earlier Eighties plan, nor would it adhere to the city's new zoning code. The plan offers broad guidelines for land use and the design of the city, while the zoning code lays out the precise regulations for homes and businesses that wish to move into specific areas. Both have been written; the zoning code is set to go into effect this week. It was after the planner's presentation that the audience was invited to speak. They moved steadily toward the mic like a machine, churning.

As chairman of the 38th and Chicago Task Force, a group that has been working for more than four years to cut crime at the troubled junction, Eric Hill has seen the problems there, he told the commission. "We understand that the pawnshop itself is not an evil establishment. But this is an at-risk intersection that must be treated with care," he said softly. "Something like this would be a big step backward, I fear. It would be very difficult to bring in a coffee shop or something."

For another 40 minutes, they asked the commission to deny Pawn America permission to set up shop. "There is nothing about a pawnshop that would be good for the children and seniors in our neighborhood," one woman stated. "Residents may give up hope or be forced to move out," another predicted, adding that she and her husband had spent $50,000 to rehab their home nearby. "Placing a pawnshop there will definitely affect the general morals of the community in an extremely negative fashion. Please," she began to weep, "make an effort to hear our community members."

There was a lone voice in favor of the permit. Not surprisingly, it came from Cary Wolski, one of Pawn America's attorneys, who rose from her front-row seat next to Brad Rixmann, the chain's founder. As she addressed the commission, she stressed that the company had submitted all the paperwork it had been asked for and it had been told that the application looked good to go. Just a year ago, she pointed out, the city changed its regulations for pawnshops, adding new conditions that had prevented Pawn America from opening a store on East Lake Street, in a much heavier commercial area than the one currently in dispute. "You said then [the new conditions were] completely consistent with the comprehensive plan, especially the chapter that's been cited today for precluding this use," she said. "Pawn America has met every one of those conditions."

Wolski, agitated but hanging on to her composure, went on to take umbrage at the prostitute analogy and asked whether anyone on the commission had ever been in a Pawn America store. Despite the earlier comment, she stressed, not all pawnshops are the same; Pawn America stores don't resemble the dark, seedy images most people conjure up at the mention of a pawnbroker and his clientele. "They are clean. They are well-lit. The people who work there are well-trained. They don't take firearms. It's not true that all pawnshops are alike. You have in front of you a very good company," she declared. "You have no choice but to approve this application."

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