A civil investigation is underway to determine whether a north Minneapolis gas station and liquor store at the same intersection are "turning a blind eye" to chronic violence, the Minnesota Attorney General's Office said Thursday.
Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a statement that his office and the Hennepin County Attorney's Office are looking into whether Merwin Liquors and Winner Gas Station "are maintaining or permitting an unlawful public nuisance on their properties."
The intersection between the two businesses is one of the city's largest open-air drug bazaars, where residents must push their way past dealers who crowd the parking lot outside Merwin Liquors and offer drugs to passing motorists.
The apparent tipping point came Sept. 8, when a drive-by shooting occurred near Merwin on W. Broadway and N. Lyndale Avenue, a troubled corner of the North Side's commercial district. Winner Gas has been dubbed the "murder station" by locals because of its reputation for attracting violence.
Earlier that same night across the street from the liquor store and gas station, dozens of people packed the Cub Foods community center to meet newly appointed Public Safety Director Cedric Alexander and hear his vision to address violent crime.
Asked about the trouble connected to Merwin Liquors and Winner Gas Station, Alexander said, "I can do everything I can to say 'close them,' but they have rights, too. … My position around it is a pretty tough one: Any time you have that many violent events around one establishment, there should be some pretty harsh consequences."
The move by the Attorney General's Office comes after exasperated community members converged outside the liquor store and temporarily shut it down last week, saying it attracts a stream of dangerous people who are traumatizing the neighborhood.
"I'm using the power of my office to take new approaches to stemming the epidemic of gun violence," Ellison said. "We are applying the law in ways it's not commonly been applied before to solve persistent problems and keep people safe.
"Companies or properties that turn a blind eye to gun violence and other threats to public safety happening on their premises need to know we are watching and will act. Keeping people and communities safe takes everyone, so I encourage anyone with concerns about these businesses to come forward."
Messages left with Winner Gas Station's ownership were not immediately returned.
Merwin Liquors owner Stuart Tapper said late Thursday afternoon that he has partnered with a street-level community outreach group in an effort to stem the violence in and near his store.
Tapper said that the collaboration "is something we've been working on for months," since plans fell through to sell the property to Love Minneapolis, a nonreligious sister organization to Sanctuary Covenant Church on the North Side.
Tapper said We Push for Peace "will assume all staffing, security and community engagement responsibilities at the store." The group members will take over duties such as clerking and stocking shelves, while all of Merwin's employees at the Broadway store will be relocated to the chain's other locations in the Twin Cities.
"Merwin Liquors Minneapolis and We Push for Peace are determined to reestablish safety at what was once a beacon of commerce in north Minneapolis and the West Broadway corridor," Tapper said in a statement.
Should the investigation find that a public nuisance exists, the businesses will be notified and given an opportunity to plan a response. However, if the anti-crime tactics fall short, the attorney general can sue for a temporary or permanent injunction, or ask the court for, among other actions, permission to close all or a portion of the business property for one year.
Ellison's office is seeking input from community and local stakeholders, as well as encouraging witnesses with accounts of criminal acts at these locations to come forward. Concerns can be called in to the Attorney General's Office at 651-296-3353 or by completing a complaint form online.
The drug dealing, shootings and other serious crimes at the intersection are feeding another year of elevated crime in Minneapolis as its police force struggles to get enough officers on the streets.
The number of shooting victims in the city this year has surpassed 400, lower than this time in 2021 but double pre-pandemic levels. About 40% of those shootings occurred in the Fourth Precinct encompassing the North Side; about a quarter were in the Third Precinct in south Minneapolis, and 20% were in First Precinct containing downtown.
After Ellison's announcement, Mayor Jacob Frey said city business licensing personnel are "making sure that our ordinances and laws are properly being enforced," and that Minneapolis is looking at "every possible avenue" to ensure safety in the community.
"Obviously, you've got to do that within the purview of the law itself," Frey said, "and we are making sure we are supporting every option that is out there."
City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, a son of the attorney general and whose ward is home to the two targeted businesses, said, "I don't think it's a secret to anyone that the corner of Lyndale and West Broadway has been a real problem for the community for a long time.
"Any support to create safety on that corner is definitely welcomed, and I'm just … looking forward to whatever conversations this generates. Between the businesses, between myself, between the mayor and the state, I think there is going to be a lot of conversation."
The letters ask each business to provide Ellison's office within the next week with any complaints and any regulatory or legal actions taken concerning them since Jan. 1, 2021.
They also are being asked to give the Attorney General's Office any internal communication since that date about staff safety and security measures taken, as well as spell out any steps taken to mitigate criminal activity on business property.
Staff writers Andy Mannix and Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.