The University of Minnesota comes to the rescue of north Minneapolis


No one had to teach entrepreneurship to Bill Sanigular or Ali Hassan Meshjell. With their own money, they bought and operated “Uncle Bill’s Food Market” on the corner of Sheridan and Plymouth Avenues in north Minneapolis. Sanigular was an immigrant from west Africa in the 1960s; Meshhell, from Iraq. But then “neighbors”, including former City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes, accused this grocery store of being a crime magnet because undesirable types of people hung out around the building.

When an unrelated shooting occurred down the street, city officials appeared at a block club on May 3, 2007 and promised to have the building closed down. Six days later, fire department inspectors posted a placard of condemnation on “Uncle Bill’s” store. The building was said to have serious structural defects even though the same group of inspectors had inspected the same building the previous summer and given it a clean bill of health. The store was closed at the end of the month. (Read Uncle Bill's story.)

Lennie Chism, another entrepreneur, bought the building in 2009. When he held a one-day “community celebration” at Plymouth and Sheridan on September 19, 2009, to promote the idea that the building might become the site of a sidewalk cafe similar to what one would find in Uptown, it must have caught the attention of city officials. After two years of vacancy, the building was demolished on September 25, 2009. (Read about the community celebration.)

This is the reality of entrepreneurship in certain areas of Minneapolis. Not only do the business owners have to attend to their own businesses, they must also worry that political predators will pounce on them - the block clubs, neighborhood groups, City Council members, etc.

Bill Sanigular ran afoul of this crowd when he posted a campaign sign for Jackie Cherryhomes’ opponent in the window of his store during the 1997 municipal election. She saw to it that he did not permission to add a deli to the store when he applied for a permit. She proposed that, because “Uncle Bill’s” was supposedly generating litter in the neighborhood, Sanigular be made responsible for picking up trash over a four-block area.

The pressures on this neighborhood store increased in 2007 when the University of Minnesota announced its interest in building a major health center near Penn and Plymouth. Suddenly the land in this neighborhood became much more valuable. The politically powerful moved in for the kill.

Initially, the University project drew criticism because it was believed that a researcher from New York State wanted to come to north Minneapolis to study the genetic basis of crime. Evidently, a large number of people in this neighborhood were thought to carry the “crime gene” or some such thing. A public-relations campaign, or perhaps a change in plans, has alleviated such fears.

The project morphed into UROC - the “Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center” - which officially opened on May 12, 2010, with an information fair and ribbon-cutting ceremony. All the right “community leaders” now seemed to be on board. None but smiling faces greeted University President Robert Bruinicks at the open house. Help was underway for this poverty-stricken Minneapolis neighborhood.

What will UROC actually do? It will be a “hub for collaborative activities to both establish and maintain mutually beneficial relationships; a place (to which) the community can come to address problems, explore solutions, and celebrate victories”, said the chair of the University’s Board of Regents, Clyde Allen.

Dr. Robert Jones, a senior vice president at the University of Minnesota, gave more specific information about the project in a cable-television interview with Art Cunningham. The University will teach certain living skills to north Minneapolis residents - for instance, good nutrition. It will teach “entrepreneurship” to persons aspiring to start their own businesses. It will even provide temporary office space to aspiring business owners as they hone their business plans.

It is unclear where university faculty or administrators might have acquired their business expertise having themselves lived in a world of income from student tuitions, alumni fund-raising appeals, and state appropriations. Undeniably, however, the University of Minnesota has mastered the political game. Its bureaucrats have mastered the art of demanding and justifying high salaries. The dean of the Carlson School of Management draws a salary of $477,000 annually and her 96 faculty members average $194,800 of income each. Tubby Smith, the head basketball coach, makes $630,000. And, yes, Dr. Robert Jones, the vice president for system academic administration who, among other things, oversees the UROC project, earns $285,560 a year in salary.

Among the most highly paid employees at the University of Minnesota is Patrick Kehoe, a professor of International Economics, who earns $342,691 in salary. He specializes in trade issues and, I would guess, is a strong supporter of free-trade policies. The nation’s free-trade policies, buttressed by academics such as this, allow America’s highly paid workers to come into direct wage competition with low-wage workers in China, India, and elsewhere. This is a principal reason that America has lost much of its manufacturing base and, increasingly, its office work, too. Young people in our communities are graduating from college with large student loans to pay off and a shrinking number of well-paying jobs.

So, while the University is facilitating the loss of American jobs, it beats the drums for entrepreneurship in a converted shopping center on Plymouth Avenue placing the burden on young people for their own employment.

I would wager that Bill Sanigular, Ali Hassan Meshjell, or Lennie Chism could teach a better course than university faculty in the realities of operating a business in a political snake-pit such as what north Minneapolis has become. However, Ali has gone back to Iraq to pursue his better opportunities there, and “Uncle Bill” Sanigular is retired.


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