By Charles Hallman
In North Minneapolis, the corners of Penn and Plymouth Avenue for decades have not lived up to their thriving business history during and before the 1970s, businesses owned and/or operated primarily by African Americans. Currently on the northwest corner sits Estes Funeral Chapel next to NorthPoint Health and Wellness. Across the street on its northeast corner is the Minneapolis Urban League, housed in the Glover Sudduth Center. Not far from the southeast corner, where Kings grocery store and Lucille’s kitchen were previously housed in a small strip mall, now sits UROC, the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center. Decades ago, a McDonalds franchise was located on that same block on the corner lot, a spot that has been vacant since the restaurant closed. Last is the southwest corner, which has been a vacant parking lot for over 40 years.
Over the next few weeks, in a series called “Transforming the North Side, ” MSR Staff Writer Charles Hallman will be speaking with leaders of organizations who are working to bring jobs and other resources to North Minneapolis, specifically to this very intersection.
First in a series
A thousand jobs for North Minneapolis, an economically challenged area? Why not, asks the Northside Job Creation Team (NJCT).
According to longtime jobs advocate Bill English, the NJCT, founded in 2013, is nearly halfway to its goal of bringing 1,000 jobs to North Minneapolis by the end of 2017. “I do the work because I love it. I’ve done it before,” said the former Control Data employment equity executive for 32 years in a recent MSR interview at UROC on Plymouth Avenue, a major Northside artery.
“I have a business and social work background,” continued English. But he said his primary focus for the past few decades has been job creation on the Northside. Since its inception, the NJCT has operated under the radar in its quest to bring more jobs to the area. They expect sometime next month to publicly release results of a feasibility study by the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
“We didn’t want to become too out there until we had some actual results to report on,” explained UROC Director of Administration and Projects James De Sota in an MSR phone interview. He has worked with the 44 member-Northside coalition, including the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis Public Schools, Pillsbury United Communities, Minneapolis Urban League, and the City of Minneapolis’ Community Planning and Economic Development Department, since it was founded.
“The last thing you want to do is stir up hope,” said De Sota. “It is better when you actually have something to show.”
English, the NJCT’s consulting project director, recalled that the group’s origins came about during Gov. Mark Dayton’s campaign stop at New Bethel Baptist Church in North Minneapolis. When asked what he would do for the Black community if elected, Dayton responded that he would hold a Northside economic summit, which he did at UROC shortly after he took office in 2010.
However, according to English, Gov. Dayton in his pledge to promote Northside economic growth established his Urban Initiative Board, “and he appointed Jackie Cherryhomes, Grover Jones and Jerry Blackwell.” Soon thereafter, Cherryhomes called English and strongly suggested that a working collaborative also be established whose primary mission would be to find jobs for North Minneapolis.
English and Cherryhomes then contacted former U of M vice president Robert Jones, former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, former Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, and local philanthropic organizations. The NJCT was born.
“We decided not to run programs but create a model to look at the best kind of opportunities to attract companies to North Minneapolis,” noted English. “Philosophically we wanted to use a research model to look at the kind of businesses in North Minneapolis where we could create living-wage jobs with benefits.”
“We have to be deliberate in making sure that we make this an economically viable community,” explained English. “North Minneapolis suffers from a lack of investment. Number two, we don’t get our fair share of public business.” Plus, the area “has been over-commercialized and over-residentialized.”
De Sota added that some believe the Northside has “all this land that needs to be developed… We are not looking at jobs…at what makes the most good for North Minneapolis.”
The three NJCT standing committees are focusing on the creation of a Northside business park (a strip mall for small businesses), working with communications professionals, and helping to prepare residents for employment. The coalition meets every other month at UROC.
The Northside Funders Group, a group of 19 public, corporate and private funders that works on reducing economic and educational disparities in North Minneapolis, gave the NJCT a start-up grant, which was used to bring in the Carlson Counseling Enterprise, a group of University of Minnesota MBA students, to do research.
The students found that the NJCT’s job creation focus should be on “food-related business, transportation, and advance manufacturing,” according to English.
“They are doing research for us on where are some of the gaps within the business place in North Minneapolis and where new entrepreneurs could fill those gaps,” explained De Sota.
Is there any particular area on the North Side that the group is looking closely at? “I think it is the overall community,” responded De Sota. “There are so many people in North [Minneapolis] who are fitting into that category of underemployed, where they are working two or three jobs, and they are capable of so much more if that right opportunity was there.”
Transportation barriers are among the obstacles facing many Northside residents who are looking for sustaining employment. “It limits where people can go and look for work,” said De Sota.
Two Black-owned companies have committed this fall to relocating on the North Side: Cut Fruit Express, which provides fruit and vegetables to local stores and retail distributors, and Metropolitan Transportation Network, Inc. The two businesses combined could provide over 300 jobs to the area.
“We’re close to 700 living-wage jobs right now,” states English, which includes 400 Minneapolis Public Schools jobs at the district headquarters’ West Broadway location. English also pointed to the proposed Plymouth-Penn development. “That’s a $95 million dollar investment” by Thor Construction, explained English. Thor plans to build their new headquarters on the long-vacant corner of Penn and Plymouth.
Also helpful is the NorthPoint expansion. “It’s a prime location,” said NorthPoint CEO Stella Whitney-West in an MSR phone interview. “We think the development is a game changer.”
“We are proud of our work,” said English. “It would not have happened without a lot of support from people like the Minneapolis Public Schools, the Minneapolis Foundation, the City of Minneapolis and the U of M. You can’t tell me that things can’t be expedited.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.