How a Minneapolis neighborhood association killed business development

by William McGaughey

Minneapolis "horror stories"

The city of Minneapolis has cut the share of its NRP funds used to subsidize certain neighborhood associations. As a five-year member of the Harrison Neighborhood Association (HNA) board, I have to say that I support that decision. Controlling the rise in property taxes is a greater priority than funding neighborhood organizations.

As a small business owner in the neighborhood, I am also writing to express my dismay at the way that the HNA board treats small businesses. The meeting on December 20th (2010) was, for me, a breaking point.

At the meeting, board members were presented with a recommendation from the “Glenwood Revitalization” committee that we deny a request from a business owner, who owned an acoustics-installation business, that HNA support a zoning variance that he would need to lease space in a vacant building near Glenwood Avenue. The variance would have returned to last year’s requirements.

The man was asking for no money. He basically wanted warehouse space in the building and, to aid neighborhood business development, was also willing to act as leasing manager for other space that could be used to support a lawnmower repair shop and a real estate office. The building has been vacant for some time and is likely to remain so. No one is interested in buying it.

With one exception (me), the board voted to deny this man’s request because it ranked low on a score sheet that the committee uses to evaluate projects. The stated reasons for rejecting his proposal were: “1) Little to no local hiring, 2) no connection to any of the approved and recognized redevelopment plans ... 3) new projects do not even appear to improve the sites they are going into - aesthetically alone, 4) low ‘value’ of what the new project will bring to the neighborhood, 5) serves little to no ‘minority’ interests, 6) has little to no improvement of the environmental or no ‘green’ design, 7) little to no ‘full and fair participation’ of community members, 8) little to no consideration for fitting into Harrison transit oriented development, 9) does not fit in with the current zoning.”

Some positive factors noted were the following: “the project has its own financing”; it is an “existing, long-running business ... that has done work throughout Minnesota”; the prospective occupant “plans to improve the building if Facade funding is available (and ) has some support from surrounding businesses”; there would be” little to no impact on parking (and) no harmful impacts on the environment.”

The HNA board was not given details on how the point system led to a negative recommendation.

Board members seemed mainly interested in whether this business would create jobs that neighborhood residents such as themselves might take. Because his was a small business, the applicant could not promise any additional hiring. One board member seemed to equate a warehouse operation with “dumping” in a poor neighborhood. Another thought it did not sufficiently “revitalize” Glenwood Avenue although I argued that a lawnmower repair shop and a real estate office in a now-vacant building would be steps in that direction. Nearly everyone voted against the man’s proposal especially after HNA’s lead staff person appeared to be arguing for that position.

This is not the first time that Harrison’s “Glenwood Revitalization” committee has killed a business proposal brought before it. There was an exercise place called “The Firm” which wanted neighborhood support which was denied several months ago because, as I recall, its proposed facility did not have enough windows.

Harrison Neighborhood Association provides few, if any, direct services to neighborhood residents. I have been trying for some time to have HNA sponsor some community events in the park building. Last summer, for instance, I made a proposal to the board for an experienced trader at the Minneapolis Grain Exchange to make a presentation to community residents on how the exchange worked. This event would be tied to a recent cover story in Harper’s magazine which explained how rising grain prices at the Minneapolis exchange aggravated the problem of world hunger several years ago.

I proposed that HNA set aside $500 as prize money for local teenagers who, after the presentation, could best explain how the grain exchange worked. The idea was to give young people some positive recognition rather than treating them always as problems. A little money spent this way would go a long way toward strengthening our community.

The board would not approve my proposal without imposing conditions. First, it appointed an arrangements committee to take charge of the project. Then, in the name of balance, it wanted other speakers besides the grain trader to make presentations. Someone wanted others besides the teenagers to be eligible for the prize money. Someone else wanted the park board rather than the neighborhood association to sponsor the meeting. This discussion has gone on month after month while I have kept the grain trader waiting who had graciously agreed to speak without requiring a fee. I have volunteered my time and energy to try to make arrangements for this event while paid staff did little or nothing. I finally pulled the plug on the project.

In conclusion, I’m fed up with how Harrison Neighborhood Association operates. It sees itself as representing a neighborhood kept poor by racism. In fact, however, this organization acts as a choke point rather than an arranger of activities that benefit the community. Harrison is a neighborhood (just west of downtown Minneapolis) of perhaps 5,000 residents which has an organization with an annual budget of around $250,000, most of it for staff salaries and benefits. The lead organizer is paid almost twice the neighborhood’s average income.

In these difficult times, we cannot afford to turn down legitimate business proposals for what I regard as frivolous reasons. The “community values” often cited in HNA communications are certainly not mine. Our city, state, and nation are hurting during this recession. I believe that Glenwood Avenue could “come back” economically if the choke point posed by the HNA board and its committees is eased.


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