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.

          Erickson's colleague, Ralph Bruins, was once implicated in a $4 million check-kiting scheme. According to press accounts, in 1983 Bruins was sentenced to three years in prison and a $20,000 fine for his involvement in a case that allowed bad checks written on behalf of the Tropicana Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas to float through the Summit Bank in Richfield.

          Bruins was president of the bank, which was owned by local businessman Deil Gustafson. In addition to the Richfield bank, Gustafson owned another bank in St. Paul and was part-owner of the Tropicana. According to affidavits filed by the FBI, Gustafson bought the casino in 1972, but by 1974 it had lost so much money that mafia elements from Kansas City had bought control, leaving Gustafson with a 20 percent share. The hotel began to flounder again in 1976, and for the next two years, checks flowed between Vegas and Minneapolis to keep its doors open. Gustafson sold the casino to Ramada in 1979, but the feds were able to secure a paper trail, courtesy of an informant, that led to Bruins's and Gustafson's convictions.

          "That was Deil Gustafson's doing and not Ralph's," says Erickson. (Bruins declined to be interviewed for this story.) He maintains that the transfer of funds took place by wire, and Bruins was unaware of the criminal activity. "He was a victim of circumstance," says Erickson. But whether or not Erickson's version is accurate, both critics and supporters of the foundation maintain that Bruins should be allowed to redeem his reputation. "We all have skeletons in our closet," says CNIA president Richard Barrett. "But we need to accentuate the positive and move forward," he says. Another resident, David Piehl, agrees with Barrett in spirit but says that such information should have been disclosed to the neighborhood associations. "There's a lot of money at stake here, and while it doesn't mean that he can't be trusted, the associations should have been told," says Piehl.

          But aside from personal conduct, critics point to a number of other concerns they have about the organization. According to Piehl, Olson, and fellow resident Robert Lillegren, while UV maintains that they support local business, they believe the group is hurting some local businesses in its quest to gobble up property. "They bought the space one of the local restaurants, Me Gusta, needed for expansion, and they also acquired parking space needed by Las Americas, the only successful grocery store in Phillips," notes Lillegren. The success of Las Americas helped bring several other Hispanic businesses to the area, but now Las Americas proprietor Selwin Ortega claims UV's actions have forced him to move his store out of the area altogether; he's relocating to Shakopee.

          But according to Erickson, who says he wasn't aware of Ortega's plan to move, Las Americas' parking problems were caused by its owner and not Urban Ventures. "He [Ortega] went to POP and said that he had gotten a permit for a parking lot. But he didn't have one, so he lost the opportunity. It's all documented," says Erickson. As to claims that he is unsupportive of local business, Erickson points proudly to two new businesses, Prosper Industries and International Building Concepts, that his foundation helped bring to the neighborhood.

          Henry Hubben of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, which formulated the plan for the 29th Street greenway, takes issue with Urban Ventures's tactics not from a business standpoint, but a community one. UV's proposed soccer fields, for instance, will abut the proposed Greenway, yet according to Hubben, the foundation plans to enclose it with an eight-foot chain-link fence and will lock it up when Urban Ventures-sponsored events aren't in progress--drastically limiting community access to the fields.

          "This creates a fortress mentality," he says. "The community is to have access to the greenway space, and to lock them out seems contrary to its purpose. This is a community development, not a real estate development." Erickson defends the policy as a matter of "security reasons."

          While a number of neighborhood association board members were contacted by City Pages for this piece, nearly all refused to comment on the record. Olson and others speculate that their silence buys some desperately needed aid. "Whether you agree with their tactics or not, they are getting things done," says Olson. Adds one official who spoke on the guarantee of anonymity, "They are a major player in the area. And we need to be politic in our dealings with them."

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