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.

          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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