U of M’s Northside center touts “community partners,” but still no benefits agreement


The long-anticipated University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center (UROC) finally opened its doors last September.

Located in the former Plymouth-Penn Shopping Center in North Minneapolis, its purpose is to give the university a physical presence in the Black community and to establish connections between community members and the university.

When the shopping center purchase deal was finalized in 2007, there were skeptics regarding UROC’s true mission and purpose, which includes more access to university information and opportunities. “I would say that there always will be those people with concerns,” says UROC Executive Director Irma McClaurin.

“We have involved community in every aspect from the design of the building to what the parking lot would look like. We’ve engaged people to talk about what should be on the walls of this space,” McClaurin points out.

“We are doing everything we can to ensure that the community voice is heard and present in the development and design. We have wonderful community partners who have been with us when it was just an idea.”

“The building itself is more than I expected it to be,” says Northside Resident Redevelopment Center Executive Director Sherri Pugh Sullivan of the totally renovated shopping center.

“This has been an amazing process – this building came together in 18 months,” notes McClaurin of UROC’s new facility accommodating 10 U of M-based programs such as the Business & Technology Center. A new expansion of the Office for Business & Community Economic Development, this program provides technical assistance to businesses and provides short-term “hotel” office spaces with computers, phones and basic supplies for individuals.

CitySongs, an arts-based youth and community development program for children in fourth through eighth grades, also is located there. “We are partnering with the Plymouth Christian Youth Center,” says music/program coordinator Cheryl Reeves. “We had a real successful fall, and we are now starting to recruit kids for this spring season and beyond.”

Reeves quickly points out that the UROC building is not just a Northside annex for university staff. “It really is a community building,” she points out. “I think as time goes on, people will see more and more how connected we are to the community and want the community to come in.

UROC also is home for collaborative research projects, claims McClaurin. One current project she touts is examining the current mortgage foreclosure crisis.

“We have a mortgage foreclosure group that has been looking specifically at the impact of this on health,” explains McClaurin. “Nobody’s looking at how this phenomenon has affected people’s health.”

Community residents are invited to attend weekly 90-minute meetings held at UROC, says McClaurin. “It’s open to anyone who wants to come, and we meet every Thursday from 3 pm to 4:30 pm.”

A $2.9 million grant to help close the digital divide in the Twin Cities that the U of M received in December “is a major success” of UROC, McClaurin claims. The grant was the only one given to a university and the largest grant given among the 2,200 proposals received by the U.S. Commerce Department.

The grant will develop and improve 11 computer labs located in north and south Minneapolis and St. Paul’s Frogtown area, provide Internet computer training for almost 17,000 individuals, create 36 new jobs and save 12 existing jobs, officials claim.

Also a university associate vice-president, McClaurin soon will be stepping down as UROC executive director. “When I came here, I was asked to take this on as my first major responsibility, but [it] never was intended for me to run this as a day-to-day operation. It’s been a wonderful delight for me to have been involved in this process. It’s rare that one gets to help design something from the ground up, and to see it actually come to fruition in such a short time.

“I will [now] spend less time on the operations and more time on documenting the work that has been done already,” she continues. There is no current timetable when the new executive director is to be hired, adds McClaurin. “So in the meantime, I’m still here.”

“She has been a real star in building relationships and some accountability,” Pugh Sullivan says. Both Pugh Sullivan and McClaurin portray UROC as the result of a community benefits agreement (CBA) between the U of M and community members, although in fact no such agreement yet exists.

“We are waiting for the university to do their due diligence,” explains Pugh Sullivan. “Then we will put together the agreement. We anticipate it being completed this year.” Nonetheless, she already feels UROC “is definitely working for the community.”

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