U of M is building out at Plymouth and Penn

The shopping center building at Plymouth and Penn (Photo by Gail Olson)

University of Minnesota, meet North Minneapolis.

Oops, try again.

And again.

It hasn’t been easy for the University of Minnesota to work its way into the North Side. A child development program it originally planned to locate there brought out protesters with picket signs. Its land acquisition attempts resulted in a rift with Hennepin County. Its efforts to study the mortgage foreclosure crisis have been criticized as too little, too late, in neighborhoods that had already been dealing first-hand with the issue for more than three years.


And a recent hiring flap outraged many neighbors and public officials, to the point where some are saying that the U just doesn’t seem to get it.


University officials say they are "walking the walk" of a complicated and ground-breaking urban partnership plan, and some bumps in the road shouldn’t obscure the important work they’re doing.


Briefly hired


When the University’s Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center (UROC) recently hired former Jordan Area Community Council (JACC) Executive Director Jerry Moore for a short-term mortgage foreclosure research project, some community members said they were shocked. JACC had fired Moore in January after he got into a fist fight at a neighborhood meeting. He has been at the center of controversy that has included legal action and heated arguments at meetings.


Dottie Titus, former JACC executive director, wrote in a recent blog: "What I mostly feel is disappointment. There was a great deal of mistrust of the University when the [University-Northside] partnership was first proposed, but I saw an incredible potential if the University was going to bring some of its best minds to help solve the problems North Minneapolis has faced over the past two or three decades."


Hiring Moore was a betrayal of trust, she added. "In my mind, it speaks volumes about the University’s real interest (or lack thereof) in the Northside Partnership. We simply cannot depend on that bright vision once held out to us."


Robert Jones, U of M Senior Vice President, said UROC hired Moore for a "casual, temporary" job. Moore had various short term work assignments, including reviewing and analyzing newspapers for content related to mortgage foreclosure issues.


"His work has been completed, he was given notice June 22 and he is leaving our employment," Jones said.


When asked if the U did a background check on Moore before hiring him, Jones said they had not.


"I understand the community has concerns. We were not aware of any accusations when he was hired. No accusations or concerns were ever mentioned to my staff. Our goal was to hire people from the community and we tried to do that. We typically don’t do background checks on casual temporary workers; you can be hired on Monday and let go on Tuesday. Because of this issue, however, I have asked staff to do background checks from now on."


Moore, contacted last week, referred all questions to Jones and Associate Vice President for System Academic Administration, Irma McClaurin.


UROC under construction


Meanwhile, the University is moving ahead with renovating a shopping mall at 2001 Plymouth Ave. N. that will house the Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center, UROC for short. According to McClaurin, who is also UROC’s Executive Director, about 60 U staffers might move in by early fall.


UROC will include, among other things, The Center for Early Education and Development’s 500 Under Five Kindergarten readiness program, which McClaurin said is neither a day care program nor a curriculum.


"We’re not service providers," she added. "We will be working with parents. The programs and activities we offer come out of research that scholars are doing."


Four U of M extension programs--urban youth development, nutrition education, family development and master gardening--will move in, as well as the U’s medical school health disparities program and the Center for Innovation and Economic Development. UROC administrators and University Northside Partnership staff will also have offices at the site.


McClaurin said the City Songs program, which nurtures children’s leadership skills through music and choir, will reside at the facility and operate in partnership with Plymouth Christian Youth Center (PCYC).


"We decided that this kind of program would build a partnership with the community," McClaurin said.


PCYC Executive Director Anne Long said, "I think that this may happen, but I haven’t seen the 'beef' yet. We’re actively working with them on the arrangements for City Songs but it’s not in place yet. The U is verbally committing to carrying some of the costs, but it’s only verbal at this point. It may be a little too soon to say it will happen."


Mortgage foreclosure


McClaurin said UROC’s health outreach includes North Minneapolis residents’ physical and mental health. Because the area was hit so hard by the mortgage foreclosure crisis, there is a committee, Effects of the Mortgage Crisis on the Individual, the Family and

the Community, she said, that meets every Thursday from 10:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.


"Committee members are looking at the mortgage crisis and what impact it had had on individuals and the community’s health. We will be sending out surveys to service providers, asking what people are saying about how this has affected their physical and emotional health.


"Part of UROC’s mission is to fill a gap. Our goal is to increase public awareness. We will create a policy brief. This is not just an economic issue," McClaurin said. "Over a two-year period, using data that is already out there, including CURA (Center for Urban and Regional Affairs) and the City of Minneapolis, we’re trying to pull it together to tell the story of the impact it has had on community health. It takes an emotional toll, sometimes resulting in divorce or suicide. People say they are losing faith in their community because there are no neighbors around anymore. We’re trying to tell that story. It hasn’t been told."


Roberta Englund, executive director of the Folwell Neighborhood Association, said, "I’m pleased with what the U will bring to North Minneapolis from their base at Plymouth and Penn. 500 Under 5 can be a meaningful, contributing program to families. The U could be a supportive partner for stabilizing and revitalizing North Minneapolis neighborhoods. But they need to come with an understanding of what their mission is and what they can contribute. I don’t think that, from the very beginning, the U was in touch with the realities of North Minneapolis.


"They simply don’t pay attention," Englund said. "They came to North Minneapolis with what I believe were good intentions, but they fell into the North Minneapolis trap of organizational self-aggrandizement. There were organizations and individuals involved with their coming who thought they would benefit.


"The voices the U listens to," Englund added, "are those most collaboratively supportive to the opinions they have already formed. They have structured outreach according to their rules, and they have imposed a structure they are comfortable with.


"This whole business of foreclosure crisis is like closing the barn door," Englund said. "It’s too late. For the U to come to the table and talk about it is a waste of their time and money and will not benefit anybody. This is not a storm that is going to regroup. If the U wanted to contribute anything meaningful, they would have looked at information from 10 years ago, including what was going on with the Federal Reserve, that contributed to the social and economic damage to the community. I don’t think anybody expected the kind of financial malfeasance and exploitation that we had. I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off understanding that."


The symposium


Last spring (2009), the University of Minnesota hosted a foreclosure symposium and invited representatives from different cities. What city didn’t get invited? Minneapolis.


Tom Streitz, director of housing for the city of Minneapolis, said, "They did not connect with either me or [foreclosure coordinator] Cherie Shoquist in an expeditious way. We were not included in an invitation to participate. It was a little bit of a disappointment to us, because the City of Minneapolis is considered a national leader in foreclosure delivery efforts. I’ve personally given presentations on foreclosure response in other cities."


Streitz added that the U eventually invited Minneapolis, after city officials learned about the symposium. Shoquist attended, he said, but he did not.


Hiring locally


Sharon Banks, U of M senior project manager, said she monitors compliance to make sure that the U is meeting its goals to hire women and minorities and to contract with minority and women-owned businesses. Two high school graduates are working as laborers on the UROC project through the Minneapolis Urban League, she said. (The Urban League’s trade specialist, Roosevelt Gaines, said they were hired as summer construction interns, at $13 an hour.) The Minneapolis Urban League pays their salaries, Banks said, and the U reimburses the Urban League.


Louis King, CEO of Summit OIC, a Northside employment training program, said Banks had contacted him about the UROC project, but he turned it down. "This was a $2 million deal. We are involved in a $200 million project at Target and a $4 million project at the Twins stadium. I told her I was not interested in tying up my people going to those meetings for this job [to get this job], which was a relatively modest rehab over a short period. We want long term engagement, where people can launch careers. From our perspective, it was a whole bunch of talk about nothing. I told them they were putting in more hours in meetings than there were hours of work for our employees."


Banks said that Summit students were more qualified than the entry-level laborers the U was seeking for the UROC project. Summit’s students would have had to be hired by the sub-contractors, not by the university, she added.


Banks said the U hired several subcontractors from North Minneapolis, including MN Best, Boone Trucking, Inc., and Vera Construction. An address check of the companies showed that MN Best is in Fridley and Boone Trucking is in Northeast. Vera Construction’s address is 2020 Aldrich Ave. N.

Cicchetti and the county


An initial 2005-2006 plan to partner with Hennepin County on a center for early education and child development, led by Dante Cicchetti--head professor at the U’s Institute of Child Development--triggered protests from a group called Leaders of African Americans Concerned Together (LAACT).


The group accused the U of not being forthcoming about its research plans, and said it worried that it would be similar to past projects that targeted low income African Americans for mental health tests without their knowledge or consent. The U denied that, and tried to move forward with plans to locate the child development center in one of three places: in NorthPoint’s human services building at Plymouth and Penn, across the street from NorthPoint on a vacant lot, or in a strip mall at the same intersection.


The University was working on buying the strip mall, once known as the King Shopping Center, from the Northside Residents Redevelopment Council (NRRC). The shopping center--which had fallen into disrepair and had a bad reputation for illegal activities out front--formerly housed Snow Foods and Lucille’s Kitchen. The $1.25 million sale touched off a dispute between NRRC and the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP), with NRP demanding that NRRC pay back renovation and redevelopment loans with its proceeds from the sale. After the University declined to take on NRRC’s debt as part of the sale price, NRRC and NRP battled it out, reaching an agreement in November, 2007.


The University completed the sale and moved forward on renovating the shopping center to house a multitude of programs.

Meanwhile, its partnership with Hennepin County didn’t go so well, when the U decided that the rent the county proposed to charge was too high.


"It’s all water under the dam as far as I’m concerned," Jones said, "But it was unfortunately framed that we were pulling out of the North Side, when we said we couldn’t afford to be in the building."


Jones said they are still looking for a site for Cicchetti’s program. "That’s what the original partnership with the county was supposed to house. We intended to renovate the shopping center and address other critical programs the community said it wanted: early childhood education, health and nutrition, technical assistance to small businesses. The plan was to locate all of those in the shopping center, but it wasn’t big enough for the Cicchetti program, so we started talking to the county."


The commitment


McClaurin said that the University is committed to UROC. "We are one of few Universities in country--if not the only one--that is doing community engagement that has situated its facility in the community that it has said it wanted to partner with. We’re walking the walk. We’re purchasing rather than leasing the building. The Board of Regents approved $4.4 million for purchase and renovation. Running the facility, including salaries, will cost $700,000 - $900,000 a year.


Jones, who lived in North Minneapolis for 20 years, said that from the beginning, the U has encountered "naysayers, people who are vocally against what we’re trying to do on the North Side.


"People have a right to their opinions. But UROC is a vision that [U of M] President Bruininks and I came up with. We are one of the largest, most complex universities in the world. We are a land grant U, which means that implicit in our mission is an obligation to serve the citizens in the state, and we’ve done that very well.


"When we launched our strategic planning," Jones said, "we decided to reach out to the urban community. The thinking was, as North Minneapolis and surrounding communities go, so goes the economic vitality of Minneapolis and St. Paul. We have the objective to solve some issues that are critical to them.


"In this new strategic vision, we are an urban university.


"We need to have a vision of engagement to address some complex issues together. This is an opportunity to move the U of M in a different direction and create a partnership between the U and the urban community. Not many places in the country are making that commitment."


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U of M foreclosure symposium that omitted Minneapolis

Years ago, the U of M had a national conference on higher education and adult learners and deigned to invite anyone from Metropolitan State University. The U's record of this kind of silliness is long.

too much

It is very expensive to run this facility. However if this U and M really helps somebody might just give them a chance to operate.