U of M-North Side vision grows ‘concrete legs’

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The defunct Plymouth-Penn Shopping Center building on Minneapolis’ North Side is currently being transformed into a University of Minnesota community outreach facility that officials predict will be open for business this fall.

A promised community development agreement, however, remains in the planning phase.

Plans for such a facility were discussed as far back as 2005, according to U of M Associate Vice President for Systems Academic Administration Dr. Irma McClaurin. The University Northside Partnership, an alliance of university representatives, community groups, and local government officials, was formed in 2006.

“The idea of a center grew,” says McClaurin, who was hired in 2007. She credits U of M President Robert Bruininks, Senior Vice President Robert Jones, community residents and others with moving from discussion to actually establishing the Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center (UROC).

“A physical building… That is an amazing kind of movement for an institution,” notes McClaurin. “This is a vision that has concrete legs and not just ideas floating.”

When it finally opens in early fall, UROC’s operating budget will be around $900,000, says McClaurin, who will be the center’s executive director. “This is an institutional commitment and vision, and that is important because that is central to it being sustainable, even in hard economic times.”

McClaurin says she is excited to build something virtually from scratch, especially on the city’s North Side. “Many of the universities [nationwide] that are urban-serving universities have [community] partnerships. Very few have a building that is physically located in the community that it is serving.

“The plan is to have office space, some classroom space, a multipurpose room, as well as a resource area that will be open to the public,” she says. “We actually reconfigured the parking lot to add more green space so that the building is not so far situated from the sidewalk. We believe that we are going to create a building that, even if people are not associated with [any] program there, they are going to want to be there.”

UROC will house several programs, including the school’s business and economic development office, a youth entrepreneur program, and after-school gardening instruction.

The center serves a two-fold purpose, the executive director explains. “The mission of UROC is really to be a bridge so that the resources of the university flow out into the community in an effective, positive way, [and] to provide access for the community into the university as well.”

Additionally, the new building will showcase community artists and provide a safe place for seniors who live nearby “where they can walk over, grab some coffee, see a film and walk back,” she proposes. “It provides them an opportunity to get out.”

Some community residents remain skeptical about UROC’s true function, beginning with the prominence of the word “research” in its name, given the Black community’s historical aversion to such terms.

Northside Residents Redevelopment Corporation (NRRC) Executive Director Sherrie Pugh says she understands such suspicions. “It’s not the word [that matters], but the action of what happens under research,” she believes.

McClaurin notes, “When people speak about research that goes wrong, and those people use the Tuskegee [Experiment] as an example, the kinds of regulation now in place, a Tuskegee could never happen [today]. Tuskegee was not done by a university, but the federal government. The university is governed by human subject guidelines.

“Research is a systematic process of discovery,” continues McClaurin. “What we are doing is taking it further to say how can we use what we learned to the benefit of the public good.”

Another concern is a community benefits agreement (CBA) that was supposed to be mutually agreed upon by community residents and the U of M in planning for the present and future needs of North Minneapolis. It features three key components: education, health and economic development.

However, according to both McClaurin and Pugh, the CBA remains unfinished.

“We have significant work done and have priorities established by the community,” Pugh explains, “but in the last six months we’ve been pretty much engulfed with having to move [from their former Plymouth Avenue location to office space inside Turning Point on Golden Valley Road]. “My goal this summer is to finish it up.”

However, according to McClaurin, the U of M can’t be obligated to certain things outlined in the CBA “that are outside of our educational mission. The university is not a service provider,” she emphasizes.

“As a public university, we cannot have commercial enterprises in our facilities, so we can’t open a grocery store,” says McClaurin. “CBAs are usually between the community and a developer — the university is not a developer. It’s a document that was designed for a specific purpose, but we think there are some elements of it that clearly we need to have some dialogue about.”

Pugh adds that she has been monitoring the university’s efforts to date, but without the CBA firmly in place, “We don’t have that strong accountability link.” She especially points to the selection process that the university used for the current renovation project.

“[The project] probably met the university’s standards, says Pugh, “[but] the actual letting of the contracts wasn’t as successful as we would have liked it to be,” including minority-owned contractors. “The minority firms really didn’t get the major contract,” she admits.

Nonetheless, Pugh believes that when it is finally completed, the CBA will be a binding document. “We do have a document that is reflective [of the Northside community]. We just have to put it in writing.”

Until everyone feels comfortable, concerns about UROC among some community members will exist and won’t quickly go away, says McClaurin. “I can’t tell you that there won’t be controversy,” she admits. “You always find some people who will disagree with how you approach things, present things, and what you are doing. We know that we have a long road to walk because we have a lot of things in the past that we are trying to get over.”

But she quickly points out, “We have taken very seriously that North Minneapolis wants to be known as a lifelong learning community.”

“I think everyone on all sides will be very proud of what we come up with” when UROC is up and running later this year, concludes McClaurin. “I look forward then to seeing it grow, continue, and be here 10, 15 years from now.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.

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