Grassroots Leaders on the Northside

Ignore the news: good things are happening in North Minneapolis

The hard truth is that most Minnesotans see North Minneapolis and places like it as somewhere else. And, by extension, someone else’s problem. Who has time to worry about what’s happening on the ground at Broadway and Emerson or Lowry and Penn when you’ve got fires burning closer to home?

More Than Meets the Eye

Lots of folks, actually. Past the television screen, past I-94’s retaining wall, there’s a pretty amazing confluence that most Minnesotans don’t know about. It’s fed in part by well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) outsiders: public-private partnerships, deep-pocketed foundations, blue-chip companies, landlords and real estate developers.

But it’s a dedicated, growing cohort of local stakeholders, many of whom trace their North Minneapolis roots back generations, who supply the fire that sustains it. They’re working to build pathways to prosperity for North Minneapolis residents and business owners — and foment sustainable economic development closer to home that benefits everyone in the neighborhood, not just those looking to make a quick buck.

Teaching the Art of Work

North Minneapolis is rich with nonprofits, faith groups and social enterprises devoted to teaching the art — and practice — of work.

On Glenwood Avenue, the Northside’s southernmost commercial corridor, Redeemer Center for Life teaches local youngsters the finer points of bike repair and café management at Venture North Bikes & Coffee. After learning the ropes, employees impart knowledge to cyclists; Tuesday open shop nights pair volunteers with walk-ins who need help with “anything from a flat fix to a complete bike build,” according to Venture North’s website. Not everyone who works at Venture North will open their own bike shop, but it’s hard to imagine a better first job.

A mile or so north, in the West Broadway commercial district, Appetite for Change runs a three-pronged operation. Kindred Kitchen, a “shared commissary,” provides “affordable, high-quality commercial kitchen space and business technical assistance to small … food businesses.” For North Minneapolis residents serious about turning a cooking or baking hobby into a legitimate enterprise, the only local alternatives are church basements. Fresh Corners, an urban farming initiative, pays local youths to farm vacant lots around the Northside; it produced 12,056 pounds of fresh produce in 2014. Much of that produce heads to Breaking Bread, a breakfast-and-lunch spot on West Broadway, where dozens more youths and adults cook and wait tables for hungry Northsiders (and living wages).

Cookie Cart, a nonprofit bakery just down the street, mirrors Breaking Bread’s approach, only with cookies. In 2016, 200 15-to-18-year-olds worked (for pay) at Cookie Cart. Most attended supplemental customer service, financial literacy, and ServSafe trainings — all crucial for future food business management and ownership opportunities.

To be sure, young employees at Venture North, Breaking Bread and Cookie Cart aren’t raking it in — they work for little more than minimum wage, in most cases. But they’re learning valuable, portable skills. And, with the summer unemployment rate for black youths sitting north of 20% (per the Bureau of Labor Statistics), demand for steady, entry-level jobs among transit-dependent young Northsiders far outstrips the supply.

Pens, Not Forks

Not every young person is keen to flip burgers, bake cookies or tend vegetable plots. The Northside’s next creative generation turns to Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA), a beloved cultural hub a block over from Appetite for Change.

Founders DeAnna (a Kansas City, Kan., native who moved to North Minneapolis in junior high) and Roger Cummings run four teen-staffed art and design businesses out of JXTA-owned buildings at Broadway and Emerson. Their philosophy is simple: “To use art as a socioeconomic and community building tool,” says DeAnna.

JXTA’s youth programming serves kids aged 10 and up. At 14, after completing a training program at JXTA, high-potential youths can apply to be hired for one of the four enterprises: graphic design, environmental design, screen printing and contemporary/public art. The enterprises earn about $250,000 annually from client accounts and pay youths $10 to $11 per hour. (The five-year goal is to get everyone to $15 and double the 70-kid cohort’s size.)

JXTA’s work has impact. In the last year or two, the various enterprises have designed and installed 3 pocket parks — including public artwork, seating, plants and bus shelters in North Minneapolis, held community outreach sessions for the planned Upper Harbor Terminal Redevelopment on the North Minneapolis riverfront, and (ongoingly) led community engagement for that enormous project — working alongside heavyweights like United Properties.

DeAnna Cummings isn’t intimidated. “[Upper Harbor Terminal] is part of North Minneapolis, and whatever happens must also benefit North Minneapolis residents,” she says. “We need to take an active role in shaping the future of that space.”

One of JXTA’s endgames is bridging the “network gap” — the educational achievement gap’s little-discussed cousin. No matter how talented they are, creative Northsiders lack easy pathways into Minnesota’s mainstream creative economy — the retailers, brand agencies and advertising firms that support tens of thousands of high-paying jobs. According to a recent City of Minneapolis Creative Index report, just 9% of creative industry workers are people of color; as of the 2010 Census, the city is roughly 36% people of color, including Hispanics of any race.

So JXTA works overtime to “build pipelines to local ad agencies and other creative employers,” says DeAnna Cummings. That means partnerships with industry groups, like Mpls MADWomen, and internship arrangements with local creative employers — which are only too happy for the help.

Some of these partners are Northsiders themselves. Down on Glenwood Avenue, not far from Venture North, KNOCK gives JXTA interns an up-close look at agency life — and a valuable CV line.

Says KNOCK founder Lili Hall, a JXTA board member: “More than 95% of JXTA alums graduate high school. That’s unheard-of in the state of Minnesota, let alone North Minneapolis.”

At KNOCK, younger JXTA students get site tours, whetting their appetites for internship opportunities down the line. “We love to show off our space and our culture,” says Hall. “We say to kids: ‘This is what a creative business looks like; are you interested?’”

KNOCK itself is a local success story. Though the company’s workforce demographics are typical of a Minnesota creative business (i.e., mostly white), it does add about 70 — and counting — white-collar jobs to a resurgent commercial corridor. KNOCK’s 2010 move from the North Loop was an important turning point for that corridor: Previously, the building housed an aging gas station and a struggling Asian food market; Hall’s team worked with the city to remove the contaminated subsoil from the gas station portion, added underground parking, and constructed a solid foundation that allows KNOCK to add two more stories to the structure — rather than leave the neighborhood in search of a bigger space.

Supporting (Not Patronizing) Homegrown Businesses

Struggling to name for-profit North Minneapolis employers? There are more than you think: Kemp’s, Muscle Bound Bindery, Standard Heating & Air Conditioning, Brin Glass Company, to name a few.

But most North Minneapolis businesses are anonymous. The district has hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small businesses and micro-enterprises, many without formal, permanent spaces of their own. Collectively, they tap a vast well of entrepreneurial energy fed by pride, ambition and circumstance.

Nonprofits Effecting Positive Change on the Northside
Dozens of nonprofits and community-driven organizations are doing amazing, mostly under-the-radar work in North Minneapolis. These are some of our favorites:

Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC): “A grassroots member-led organization building power in under-resourced communities and communities of color across the Twin Cities, focused on the intersection of race, the economy and public policy.” 

Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA): JXTA “develops community by engaging and employing young urban artists in hands-on education initiatives that create pathways to self-sufficiency while actualizing creative power.” 

CommonBond Communities: Based in St. Paul, CommonBond Communities is “the Midwest’s largest nonprofit provider of affordable housing with services,” with over 10,000 residents (2,500 of whom are children) across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. 

Pillsbury United Communities: Minneapolis-based Pillsbury United Communities “design[s] solutions that address a spectrum of intersecting needs, from education to employment to health.” The ultimate goal: “creating a new model for nonprofit organizations with our interconnected system of programs, community centers and social enterprises.” 

Building Blocks: Founded by Minneapolis-born NBA star Devean George, Building Blocks focuses on “mentorship programming, affordable housing, and sustainable community development.” 

Appetite for Change: AFC “uses food as a tool building health, wealth, and social change in North Minneapolis [while] strengthening families, creating economic prosperity, and encouraging healthy living.” 

Tree Trust: Tree Trust “address[es] two problems in our communities: the devastation of the urban tree canopy due to Dutch elm disease and the high unemployment and poverty rates for youth and adults at the time.” In North Minneapolis, the focus is on rebuilding the urban forest after the 2011 tornado. 

Redeemer Center for Life: The nonprofit social justice arm of Redeemer Lutheran Church “act[s] as an agent of hope and transformation to preserve a vibrant community in the Harrison neighborhood of North Minneapolis.” 

West Broadway Coalition: WBC “leads initiatives to bring businesses, non-profit organizations and neighbors together to create an inviting and vital West Broadway corridor that will transform the Northside into a thriving economic community.” 

For support, they count on economic development organizations such as Metropolitan Economic Development Association (Meda) and Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON).

Meda’s Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) provides business consulting, financing and market access assistance for minority-owned small and medium-sized businesses across the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota. Its ideal client is a minority-owned company that’s at least two years old, pulling in $1 million or more, and is actively creating or looking to create good-paying jobs in minority communities. On average, Meda clients pay employees more than $22.50, well above the Northside median.

Meda is doing well. President and CEO (and native Northsider) Gary L. Cunningham has grown the portfolio from $6 to $14 million, since taking over. He’s also strengthened partnerships with other minority business boosters — African Development Center, Asian Economic Development Association, Somali Chamber of Commerce, Minnesota Black Chamber of Commerce — to expand Meda’s supply of viable client enterprises.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 Economic Census, Minnesota had about 47,000 minority-owned small businesses. The category was growing at a 10% annual clip. Cunningham estimates that just 30% of Minnesota-based minority-owned enterprises are poised for “serious growth”; his all-consuming mission is finding and developing those high-potential companies.

Meda has plenty of successful clients. Thor Construction, the state’s largest minority-owned employer, is the poster child. “[Thor] started with a guy and a truck, became Minnesota’s largest minority-owned business, and is now returning to its roots in North Minneapolis,” says Cunningham. The 250-person construction firm is building a four-story, $36 million headquarters at the intersection of Plymouth and Penn, just a few blocks from Cunningham’s childhood home; an even larger project, the $65 million Northpoint Health & Wellness headquarters expansion, is set to rise across the street next year. Meda will also be moving to the building, thanks to support from Target.

What about other Meda alums?

There’s Estes Funeral Home: “the black funeral home in Minnesota; a sacred part of the community,” says Cunningham. Northpoint’s expansion will displace Estes; Meda supplied bridge capital to see the home through its relocation to the intersection’s southwestern corner.

There’s MTN Transportation, a Fridley-based school bus operator transforming a blighted North Minneapolis industrial property into a secondary maintenance and dispatch hub. The hub could employ up to 70 people by next year.

And there’s Olu’s Center, a day care and home health services provider serving children, the elderly, and everyone in between. “[Founder Gloria Freeman] had this exciting vision to build an intergenerational care facility in the middle of North Minneapolis,” says Cunningham. Among other things, Meda helped Freeman apply for a Community Reinvestment Fund loan to rehab a dilapidated commercial building at Plymouth and Humboldt into a safe, welcoming space for vulnerable kids and adults.

That First Leg Up

For every Meda breakout, 50 Northside entrepreneurs toil in obscurity.

These anonymous, early-stage small and micro-businesses are NEON’s bread and butter. President and CEO Marcus Owens lumps NEON’s work into four “buckets”: training and knowledge-building, including technical assistance and feasibility studies; access to capital; access to markets; and business incubation.

This last bucket, a pilot partnership with Appetite for Change’s Kindred Kitchen, focuses exclusively on food businesses and landscape/property maintenance. According to Owens, North Minneapolis loses about $10 million in restaurant demand to other cities and neighborhoods each year. With more eateries distributed throughout the area, some of that money would remain. Starting in May, NEON launched a once-weekly food truck rally across the street from its West Broadway office, within walking distance of Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters.

“We thought about doing it downtown, but business is actually better on West Broadway” due to the high daytime population and lack of competition, says Owens. Plus, the five participating trucks get to stay closer to home.

NEON’s market access campaign includes a homegrown property management business (a “social enterprise,” says Owens) that helps the city of Minneapolis and private clients with outdoor and indoor property maintenance and abatement. A limited number of apprentices gain hands-on experience that they can leverage into steady work with other management companies; the enterprise also familiarizes small-time contractors with the municipal contracting process. Separately, NEON’s West Broadway office has an onsite co-working space with about 20 short-term tenants — mostly independent professionals who can’t work at home and can’t afford Class A (or C) space.

NEON’s capital access operation is smaller than Meda’s. Its wheelhouse is microlending: loans of $500 to $10,000 for “solopreneurs, micro enterprises, very early-stage businesses with scale-up potential,” says Owens. Borrowers tend to be credit- and asset-poor; traditional financing is out of the question. NEON partners with Kiva U.S. and other financing partners, but it’s not enough to keep up with demand: In 2016, NEON and its partners serviced just $200,000 out of $1.5 million in total funding requests, even though the network’s technical assistance and training services keep its loan portfolio performing above 90%. So Owens and his team are working on an internal funding solution that would allow NEON to originate loans directly.

Of course, there’s an 800-pound gorilla looming over these efforts: national politics. NEON gets about 40% of its funding from public sources; the balance comes from private foundations, high-net-worth individuals, and its own economic activities — property management and co-working, mostly. The Trump administration’s first stab at a budget proposal was flatly rejected by legislators of both parties and is likely to have only indirect influence over actual budget negotiations, which take place in Congress. But the administration’s priorities aren’t exactly secret. NEON relies on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the IRS’s New Markets Tax Credit Program, among many other public initiatives facing deep cuts or outright elimination.

“We’re assuming that everything is on the chopping block right now,” he says.

Championing Community-Driven Development

That may cheer conservatives who champion private solutions, but Owens doesn’t buy it. (Nor do most urban policymakers and on-the-ground change agents.) Local, state and federal grants catalyze initiatives that then attract private dollars from family foundations, high-net-worth individuals, and for-profit companies — not the other way around.

“The market doesn’t work here yet,” says Owens. At least, not in the way Northsiders want it to. Cut or eliminate public funding for community-building and you erode local agency. Minneapolis is growing; sooner or later, development is going to happen on the Northside. The question is, will it be driven by the people who’ve been there for generations, or white-collar professionals fleeing exorbitant market-rate apartments in Uptown or the North Loop for slightly cheaper market-rate apartments on West Broadway? Will it be development that benefits those with the most to lose, or development for development’s sake that displaces longtime Northsiders out to Robbinsdale, Crystal, Brooklyn Center?

Most local stakeholders hope for the former. One need look no further than Minneapolis Public Schools’ new-ish West Broadway headquarters, which has catalyzed small business and social enterprise growth between Dupont and Fremont. And a quick review of proposed, under-construction, and recently completed neighborhood projects offers ample reason for hope.

For starters, there’s Broadway Flats, a mixed-use development anchored by about 19,000 square feet of commercial space, a public plaza and a transit stop. The $25 million project is a quintessential public-private partnership: DEED, the Met Council, Minnesota Housing and other agencies supported three for-profit and nonprofit partners. The building at Broadway and Penn brings 103 units of new workforce (affordable) housing to an area devastated by the 2011 tornado.

A few blocks south, Commons @ Penn adds 45 units of housing, a Northpoint Health & Wellnes s satellite clinic and common areas for residents to socialize. The retail anchor is Wirth Cooperative Grocery*, North Minneapolis’s first food co-op — the main source of fresh food in a 1.5-mile radius.

Near the intersection of Glenwood and Cedar Lake Road, Artspace and Wellington Management are working on Market 212, a full-block, mixed-use development for artists and creative professionals. It’s actually two separate developments; Wellington, as master developer, will eventually sell the north half of the block to Artspace for a 105-unit, mostly below-market-rate apartment building set to open in 2019. Wellington plans to turn the south half’s dilapidated, sort-of-historic low-rise industrial structures into 52,000 square feet of creative commercial space, with occupancy tentatively planned for this winter. The complex is the first ripple in a likely wave of development spurred by the planned Bassett Creek Valley LRT station and Glenwood Avenue BRT line.

Wellington is less averse to marginal areas than some real estate companies; the St. Paul family firm has another North Minneapolis property, significant holdings in the once-blighted Lake/Hiawatha area (where the Blue Line LRT has lifted fortunes), and a community-first philosophy that involves close collaboration with neighborhood associations and local business groups. David Wellington, Market 212’s project lead, regularly interacts with staff from the Harrison Neighborhood Association*, whose offices are just a few hundred yards away, and the Bryn Mawr-Harrison Redevelopment Oversight Committee (ROC).

“We’re comfortable working in a below-market-rate environment, and we don’t like to sell,” says Wellington. “We’re in these areas for the long haul.”

Other ideas for long-term development are more ambitious, unorthodox and uncertain.

Larry Abdo, a maverick real estate developer who precisely no one would confuse with a longtime Northsider, has a vision for (literally) block-by-block housing development. On underused, transit-accessible North Minneapolis blocks, Abdo envisions new-construction, medium-density communities with high owner-occupancy rates.

Executed properly, this could address multiple issues plaguing the Northside’s real estate market: absentee landlords, dilapidated housing stock, low ownership rates and the resultant “equity gap,” transit access. When we spoke in March, Abdo had shopped the idea to city planning authorities, but has no plans to pursue the idea himself.

“I don’t know whether it’ll be me or someone else who does this, but I think that’s where you start if you want to change the housing dynamic,” he says.

The Northside’s Story Continues

Predicting the future is tricky. Will social entrepreneurs supported by NEON and Meda revitalize the district’s business base?

Will JXTA’s creative youths foment a renaissance that deservedly, belatedly, puts the Northside on the national culture map?

Will community-driven development build equity and wealth for longtime Northsiders, not just property developers and absentee landlords?

The well-being and prosperity of thousands of Northsiders hang in the balance.

Just as most Minnesotans barrel through on their way to somewhere else, we’ve only fleetingly peeled back the curtain on the potential for positive change in North Minneapolis. If you really want to know what’s happening here, you need to get off the freeway.

*Full disclosure: Brian Martucci is a Wirth Cooperative Grocery member and investor. His wife is a neighborhood representative for Harrison Neighborhood Association.