The Fierce Urgency of North

After 40 years of deterioration, drive-by goodwill and alienation in North Minneapolis, can Catalyst Community Partners really spark the change the area so desperately needs?

By Drew Wood

Welcome to West Broadway

Basketball bastion. Minneapolis mainstreet

The idea is that if we throw out a couple gentle, alliterative monikers to start the story your impression of North Minneapolis might be softened.

Sovereign slum. Crime capital.

Or not.

North Minneapolis is many problems. It's a problem for Minneapolis: a blight. It's a problem for Twin Citians: a shady spot of town. And, oh yeah, it's a problem for the 60,000 souls who exist there, eat there, educate there, were born there and, inevitably, will whither there: a prison.

Its heart pulses from West Broadway, a place thoroughly annexed from the rest of town. I-94 forms the eastern flank, Plymouth Avenue traps the southern, Penn Avenue fortifies the western wall and 26th pins in the north. Save the 20,000 people who employ West Broadway as their savvy, western suburbs to downtown commuter shortcut, most wouldn't even know where exactly North Minneapolis was.

But what did North Minneapolis do to become this black hole of drive-by goodwill and broken promises, and how, after 40 years of disinvestment, misinvestment [and everything in between], is it going to become anything else? Catalyst Community Partners think they have the answers. But can [yet another] group of upper-middle-class-mainly white-outsiders really be part of the solution?

Starting Point

For everyone involved, the undeniable epicenter is West Broadway Avenue. It has to be.

"This mile-long stretch is really the economic, historical and social spine of North Minneapolis," says Sue Wollan Fan, president of Catalyst Community Partners and former senior exec at Accenture and Best Buy, of West Broadway. "So as the health of this spine goes, so goes everything else. That's the core."

However, articulating the logical root of the North Minneapolis problem and, presumably, the key to turning it all around, is not the same as actually knowing how to do it. For years-decades really-individuals, organizations and even the city of Minneapolis have made efforts-most of them financial and most of them fleeting-to right the North Minneapolis ship, but never have said efforts come to any sort of meaningful fruition.

Even Target, single-handed neighborhood gentrifier and perpetual bright-spot in consumer spending, failed in its 2003 attempt to run a profitable North Minneapolis retail store. They opened on West Broadway and promptly closed due to their failure to produce necessary profits.

It wasn't the first time an attempted white knight had failed, but Catalyst Community Partners is determined to make it the last.

"We looked at it and said, ‘How do we get this sort of tired investment terrain and wake it up,'" says Wollan Fan. "We do that by creating cool ventures and getting businesses back in service in such a way that they stimulate others to invest. That's our whole model. It's not about doing it, it's about waking up and creating momentum that creates confidence that stimulates investment so that we don't have to do this work anymore because the market begins to actively work to fill in the blanks. Our goal is to not exist."

To Catalyst, then, the problem for Target and all the failed do-gooders before them wasn't bad intentions-which isn't to say there haven't been some over the years-but rather a go-it-alone mentality. 

As Wollan Fan notes in what could be called the Catalyst mission statement, Reviving Underperforming Low-Income Markets, "Low income areas are such because of a persistent lack of investment over an extended period of time. One business operating in isolation is quickly defeated by lack of consumer confidence. Everyone watches the guinea pig. First mover advantage isn't so unless there are many first movers at the same time."

And it's not like there's no good reason to invest in North Minneapolis. The residents need and want the same goods and services other Twin Citians do, they just don't have access to them in their neighborhood.

"There's [upwards of] $7 million being spent by people from North Minneapolis at restaurants outside of North Minneapolis because there's no good sit-down restaurants there," says Wollan Fan, articulating just one of the reasons investing in North Minneapolis is not solely charitable giving, but rather potentially good business. "In any other market people want to be first mover-there's a captive audience-but what happens is, there's this sort of unnatural market reaction of people stepping back. Instead of jumping in, the entrepreneurs are spectators."

History Lesson

It's important to remember that North Minneapolis hasn't always been like this. In fact, part of what makes the area's Sisyphian struggle to reverse course so acutely poignant is just how vibrant and crucial a corridor it once was.

"Turn the clock back to 1950," says Mike Christenson, director of economic development for the city of Minneapolis. "You're in a city that's one third denser than this one-there are 526,000 people. West Broadway at Christmas looks like Bedford Falls. It has holiday trimmings that hang from both light posts up and down the block. Both sides are three stories high. Skelly's Liquor and Friedman's Shoes are at the gateway of West Broadway. There is no Highway 94 and there are no fast food restaurants with surface parking lots. That's where West Broadway was in 1950: a healthy corridor clogged with useful business that provided goods and services to the people of North Minneapolis."

Christenson, who has been a part of other corridor rebuilding efforts in Minneapolis-think Nicollet, Franklin and Lake-believes that in the history lies the magic, and that part of what failed in the past is an abandonment of said history.

"We've asked [Catalyst] to hold the historic front of West Broadway," says Christenson of the direction Catalyst should take. "We need to get back to 1950-third story on both sides, a real corridor."

And for good reason. For North Minneapolis the first half of the 20th century was a time of unparalleled diversity, commerce and civic pride. The North Minneapolis of yesteryear boasted a working class population that peacefully spanned ethnic communities. It was the home to Minnesota's largest Jewish community but also to vast populations of African Americans, Scandinavians and Irish Catholics.

Destiny, of course, had other plans.

"I lived on the north side until I was 7," says Minneapolis historian and author Iric Nathanson of his North Minneapolis roots. "My parents were both born on the north side and my grandparents settled in the north side in the 1880s."

Nathanson, whose family finally moved from North Minneapolis-and the home his grandfather built-in 1947, notes that, although there wasn't one particular instance on which the pendulum swung irreversibly the way of destruction, there was a combination of factors that conspired against the sanctity of North Minneapolis.

For one thing, Nathanson says, the 1950s saw flight, mainly white, to the suburbs, which followed closely on the heels of the oft lamented death of the streetcars-prominent cogs in West Broadway's early economic machine.

And then came the 1960s and with them a tense racial juggernaut. As with other highly diverse urban regions, through the mid-'60s tensions mounted in increasingly public ways and North Minneapolis's rapidly rising racial barometer finally burst into all out chaos in 1967 in the form of the Plymouth Avenue riots, which dealt an already teetering North Minneapolis its knockout blow.

The area's annexation-both physical and ideological-followed suit, and by the 1970s Iric Nathanson's North Minneapolis was all but a distant memory.

Drive-By Goodwill

In subsequent years there was plenty of attempted goodwill as countless nonprofits came and went, and outside "investment" occurred but was rarely sustained. 

"The isolation, the hopelessness, the running away from the business corridors, the failing schools-Minneapolis is a tale of two cities," says Sondra Samuels, Catalyst board member and president of North Minneapolis nonprofit the Peace Foundation. "You've got some blocks that rival Edina, and then we all know the blocks that none of us want to go down. And those are the neighbors that are the most isolated, the most left behind, and are not benefitting from anything this region has to offer."

Isolation begets isolation while failed charity, in turn, begets animosity. As North Minneapolis's station worsened, the hollow handouts, charity and misguided goodwill only further propelled the area's downward spiral and disenchantment. Instead of empowering community members to unite and rise-up, it has gently pushed the majority of them deeper down, only surfacing for the occasional, forlorn charity-grab.

"Whether it's guilt-driven or driven by ignorance or fear, there has been literally millions of dollars placed in this community without, in many cases, the other steps of how you spend the money effectively," says Stuart Ackerberg, founder of Catalyst Community Partners and principal of commercial real estate developer the Ackerberg Group, of the fundamental flaw in how the ever-worsening situation has been handled. "How do you truly create leadership? How do you create entrepreneurs? How do you empower people? How do you get from point A to point B? The people in [North Minneapolis] are as talented as the people in every other community, they just haven't had that piece."

The Gathering Peace

By the beginning of the last decade, the city was ready to be more proactive in its approach to North Minneapolis. They began by saturating West Broadway with law enforcement, Christenson says, which on its own wasn't enough, so they turned to a "prosecution solution" whereby they prosecuted and locked up as many of the chronic West Broadway offenders as possible.

"Now the chronics are gone. They used to gather there-20, 30 of them-at Broadway and Lyndale and harass traffic, commit nuisance crimes and deal drugs," says Christenson. 
However, the criminal component-still an issue to be certain-is merely an overt symptom of the larger problem: atrophy due to perpetual lack of sustained investment and development.

"Since 1950 it's been a steady decline to the point where, when the mayor and council took a stand in 2003, one of the best commercial properties on the street was 1101 West Broadway, and that was a city-owned property that had been mothballed for 15 years," says Christenson in seeming disbelief. "The city was showing up as part of the problem. We were running a boarded and vacant property-and not very well! And there was a lot of boarded and vacant properties along West Broadway. There was no investment and no hint of an investor interested. The city of Minneapolis doesn't develop properties. It looks to the private sector to do that. When there isn't a return on investment-that is, you're in a commercial corridor and you can't make a profit-you turn that over to a nonprofit developer. But there were none on West Broadway."

Stuck, Minneapolis spent 14 months developing an over 100 page plan for the turnaround of North Minneapolis, West Broadway Alive, and proceeded to approach one of its savvier commercial investors for help.

 "So I went to Stuart Ackerberg who was then the leading investor on Hennepin in Uptown and I said, ‘Stu, I want to show you the market value chart for the city of Minneapolis,'" says Christenson. "And he said, ‘Why do I care about the market values in Minneapolis?' And I said, ‘Because this shows you where market value growth occurs. Green is a lot of growth and red is no growth at all.' And he looked at it and saw that Lake Street had grown all the way down the line, against all odds. Franklin, all green. Nicollet, all green. It was market value growth on all corridors in the city. And I said to him, ‘The next one is West Broadway.'"

The call to action stirred Ackerberg and, as Christenson says, while he was hoping Ackerberg would step in as a for-profit developer, instead he stepped-in in a nonprofit to capacity, electing to give over his margins entirely to Catalyst.

"He's one of these guys with a terrific business mind and a deep, spiritual sense of purpose. While he's been very good at approaching real estate from a business perspective, West Broadway has captured his public spirit. We've benefitted from that," says Christenson. "I'm not sure a really successful, private developer has ever decided to shift his purpose so clearly from private to public purposes. And I know the city's elected leaders are in awe of what he has done."

And what Ackerberg has done is built a nonprofit, Catalyst, which has in turn begun to redevelop West Broadway one gnarled property at a time in accordance with West Broadway Alive. After starting in 2004 as a "not-for-profit arm" of the Ackerberg Group, Ackerberg determined it was important to bifurcate the not-for-profit and, in January 2008, formally commenced as Catalyst Community Partners.

"With Catalyst we end up with an independent organization that's accountable, that's transparent and that's really fully developed with professionals running it from day-to-day," says Ackerberg. "So, if something were to happen to me or to the Ackerberg Group, Catalyst is unaffected."

Building the Change

Catalyst wants to buy the worst properties the area has to offer and turn them into great ones using the Ackerberg Group as their developer.

"[They're] all-in on West Broadway," says Christenson. "And [they] have 10 major projects. Ackerberg has signed personal guarantees on churches, personally redone parks, he has purchased property, he has worked in the streets, he has taken the risk of the unknown with the historic properties."

After working with the Pohlad Family Foundation on revitalizing Cottage Park-a former drug-dealer hotbed just one block north of West Broadway, which witnessed the 2000 murder of a 11-year-old-and surrounding homes, Catalyst turned to a century-old church, which had stewed vacant for decades before being purchased in 2003 by a group of Liberian immigrants who spent five years futilely toiling on its renovation. In less than five months Catalyst transformed the dilapidated church above Cottage Park into what is now the 200-member-strong Garden of Gethsemane Ministries; the effective all-seeing-eyes of the park.

On West Broadway proper Catalyst began by assessing all of the condemned, run-down and foreclosed commercial spaces on the corridor, eventually sectoring them into five distinct nodes as per the directive of West Broadway Alive-Household Needs, Mainstreet, Youth Fitness, Housing and Arts/Entertainment. Within said nodes they marked as many as 20 properties for potential investments and began with 1101 West Broadway, the city-owned property that even Mike Christenson admitted was anemic. In less than seven months 1101-vacant and rotting for the 11 years previous-was new again and home to three businesses: the Bean Scene Too coffee shop, City County Federal Credit Union and Emerge.

The next move was to 1200 West Broadway, where they bought a former mortuary turned daycare in September 2008. By April 2009 they had broken ground, and by August 2009 the main offices had opened to a 100 percent lease rate. Among the 1200 West Broadway tenants are Catalyst Community Partners themselves, the Peace Foundation/Northside Achievement Zone, Northway Community Trust, local contractor Tri Construction and six others in addition to a rentable community kitchen/Northside Food Business Incubator, and a community law clinic currently being manned by Catalyst and lawyers from Gray Plant Mooty.

And in September 2009 Catalyst commenced what is arguably their largest project yet. Built in 1907, 2119 West Broadway was home to Howie's Bar, a restaurant, bar and reception hall during the golden years of North Minneapolis's history and later to DeLisi's Restaurant, both of which were community highlights. As time wore on, however, DeLisi's drew an increasingly criminal crowd, and by 1996 it was shuttered and forfeited to the city only to sit vacant and decaying until Catalyst purchased it thirteen years later.

Although it probably would've been cheaper to knock the nearly 13,083 square foot space down and start from scratch-entire exterior walls had to be replaced among other major issues-Catalyst is honoring the building's heritage and painstakingly renovating it. Dubbed "Five Points Building," the finished product is intended to function as the western gateway to the West Broadway corridor and will be home to KMOJ radio station, a full-service restaurant and a salon, and plans to support over 60 jobs.

Peace Perpetuated

Catalyst is not the only organization affecting change in North Minneapolis, however. The Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON), led by Grover Jones, and WomenVenture are at the forefront of promoting entrepreneurism, while Emerge and Twin Cities Rise! are actively working to facilitate job skills and social ventures that will help put Northside residents to work. And then there's the Pohlad Family Foundation who, according to its vice president and director, Marina Lyon, had committed $2.6 million to North Minneapolis before Catalyst even existed.

"Catalyst is not the impetus-things were happening before they came-but when it comes to business they are definitely leading," says Samuels. "They are the thought leaders. They are the action leaders. I know Catalyst is not looking for applause. They're bringing a business model to some of our most intractable issues, with a heart behind it. For example, a business mind says, ‘We have got to get the best businesses on West Broadway and they have got to turn a profit.' The heart says, ‘How do we bring along community members? What role do we need to play to make sure the people who have suffered the most get to benefit the most from the transformation of the community?'"

And, perhaps most effective about Catalyst's offering is their quick delivery and commitment to using the local workforce.

"The beauty here is that the cause and effect is so quick," says Ackerberg who is utilizing an unprecedented 40-50 percent minority work hours on recent Catalyst commercial development projects, many of them coming from within North Minneapolis. "Which is a physical transformation and bricks and mortar but really infusing those with businesses that have a huge impact on the community. People get to have jobs, people get to be entrepreneurs, people get to have commerce. It's not like in three years or five years or 10 years you'll have results. It's much quicker."

The West Broadway community is beginning to buy-in. Wollan Fan notes the instances of people taking bars off their windows and putting mosaic glass up instead, a dentist office beautifying its facade, the simple act of people having coffee on the sidewalk and, much greater still, kids playing safely in the parks as among the indicators that things are turning once and for all.

"It's not just people no longer putting bars on windows. It's fixing it up and investing in it, knowing it's going to be safe," says Wollan Fan of the more subtle yet wholly more profound shift that is occurring in North Minneapolis. "We have a large piece of artwork on 1101, and in the two years it's been there, it's never been defaced. I think people going by there and seeing that building has been safe has given them the confidence that whatever I put up won't get ruined. Now what we want to see is some of these buildings that are in foreclosure be purchased outside of Catalyst. The tipping point happens when we've got people that aren't just showing interest, but are actual, viable property owners."

And It Begins Anew

More than forty years ago a slow leak began in previously water-tight North Minneapolis. At first it was a trickle, hardly noticeable. But over the years it was ignored and allowed to swell until eventually the seals could no longer hold and that once minute, gently bothersome drip unleashed a flooding torrent so fierce and unstoppable upon North Minneapolis that all that could be done was cordon it off, so as to stop it's wicked reach. And there West Broadway lay, eerily submerged and destined to corrode under the gently lapping water, which seemed only to grow deeper, more terrifying, with every would-be savior.

Over the past handful of years, however, a series of mighty, collective pushes by Catalyst and a like-minded collective have receded the waters so long devouring West Broadway. North Minneapolis is still wet, but it is drying. It is still broke, but it is mending. The story of North Minneapolis is really just beginning.