New Kids on the Block

A nonprofit group called Urban Ventures is making moves along the long-depressed Lake Street corridor--and polarizing some of the people who live there in the process.

          In the 1960s and early '70s, Lake Street was a viable commercial hub. But urban flight changed its landscape, and for the past two decades a succession of private and public concerns has pushed to restore the corridor to its former vitality. Most of these proposals have moved with glacial speed, as a drive down Lake Street will attest.

          But a recent project advanced by one nonprofit is rapidly gaining momentum and has already produced some visible results. The group, Urban Ventures, has polarized reactions along Lake Street. Some residents say they'll welcome any kind of progress; others contend that residents are purposely excluded from the process, and that the revitalization plan is nothing more than a land grab by a Christian-based organization seeking to expand its power.

          Urban Ventures Leadership Foundation was formed by Minneapolis residents Art Erickson and Ralph Bruins in January 1993. It's a spin-off of City Venture Economic Development, a nonprofit founded in the late 1970s by Control Data founder William Norris to stimulate economic and community growth in inner cities across the country. When City Ventures dissolved, the two men obtained its nonprofit status, narrowed its scope to the Phillips and Central neighborhoods, and set up shop near Lake Street and Fourth Avenue South. Erickson became the foundation's president, Bruins its executive director; together they assembled a board of directors that includes some prominent Minneapolis businesspeople and former Governor Al Quie.

          In its early days, Urban Ventures focused on providing social services to the community. Erickson, an ordained minister who spent 25 years working with family and youth at Park Avenue Methodist in Minneapolis before leaving the church four years ago, subsequently joined Central Community Church, which currently shares quarters with Urban Ventures.

          Under the nonprofit's umbrella, Erickson and his staff began creating programs and ventures:

          § the Center for Fathering, a support group program designed to "champion the role of fathers";

          § the Urban Starts Athletic Club, which supports basketball, soccer, and baseball leagues for inner-city youth;

          § and the People's Exchange, which provides food and clothing to families in need.

          But according to Erickson, providing social services alone to a struggling community is only half the battle. "Over the last 40 years," he says, "the leaders have left and the primary economy has left. We have to bring back the economic engine." In response, he says, Urban Ventures has devised an economic revitalization plan known as the "Opportunity Zone." Erickson maintains that the plan will attract new business to the area and generate over 1,000 jobs. Critics contend the figure is drastically inflated.

          The Opportunity Zone, or OZ, runs from runs from I-35W to Portland Avenue and 29th Street to 31st. While the draft has gone through several permutations in the past year or so, the current version has the real estate along Lake designated for commercial purposes, while the rest of the area is slated for either residential, office, or light industrial concerns. An already funded greenway proposal runs along the railroad tracks at 29th Street, but this didn't start out as an Urban Ventures project; it was inherited from the Midtown Greenway Coalition.

          The most controversial aspects of the plan, however, are a hotel, a sports and arts center, and two full-size soccer fields. According to residents who attended several OZ planning sessions, these are Urban Venture's "pet projects" and don't reflect the neighborhood's wishes or needs.

          As urban planning in Minneapolis requires neighborhood involvement, UV approached People of Phillips (POP) and Central Neighborhood Improvement Association (CNIA) with their plan, and the three organizations created the OZ Steering Committee. The committee solicited funds from the McKnight Foundation to hire a planning consultant and began to strategize. According to Joe Olsen, who lives in the Central neighborhood, residents weren't apprised of the plan or given the opportunity to provide input until spring of this year, nearly three years after the process had begun. And by then it was academic: After one community meeting where residents were encouraged to brainstorm, residents came back the next time to find that everything but the UV plan was off the table.

          Nonprofits like Urban Ventures typically rely on the generosity of others for their funding, particularly corporate donors. And according to UV financial statements, the group has availed itself of some pretty deep pockets. In 1993, its first year of business, UV raised over $700,000 and had investments (land, buildings, equipment) totalling $672,212. By the end of the following year, 1994, Urban Ventures had collected over $1 million in donations and had investments totalling $960,830. Among its donors are corporate behemoths Honeywell and Cargill, the McKnight Foundation, and the Minneapolis Community Development Agency.

          While it is clear that Erickson and Bruins are adept fund-raisers, critics maintain that their roles as supposed leaders in the community is suspect. Although Erickson maintains he had a successful run at Park Avenue Methodist, others claim that his leadership style is contentious and precluded his working with other strong personalities. "We were never able to develop any leadership under him," says a Park Avenue parishioner. "Any strong leaders left as he demanded to hold the reins."

          A neighbor of the church, John Hustad, says that while he was not a congregant, he nonetheless butted heads with Erickson on a number of occasions. According to Hustad, the church held an annual festival called "Soulebration," and the ensuing crowds and noise wreaked havoc on the neighborhood. "City ordinances state that these kinds of events can't run more than three nights, but this event would run for seven. The noise was unbelievable, there was trash everywhere, and parking was a nightmare," he says. What was most galling, he contends, were the messages disseminated by festival speakers. "Some of them were extremely inflammatory. They were against certain minorities--specifically gays. I resented having religious messages beamed down my throat night after night," he says.

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