The Once and Future River

Promenades and parks, cappuccino and condos: Tomorrow's upper Mississippi looks dandy. But first, can't city hall get rid of those grimy scrapyards? Why, yes.

Jeff Schoen thought the spot was perfect. Tucked into the shadow of the majestic Grain Belt Brewery in northeast Minneapolis was a piece of land the city owned, and wanted someone to develop. Schoen's vision when he first saw the property in late 1991 was to build a commercial sound stage there, designed to cater to the local advertising industry. The Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA)--the city's development arm--liked the idea: a state-of-the-art sound stage on the scale Schoen had in mind, the agency reasoned, would surely boost prospects for film producers in and around town, and it would make a good fit with the area's emerging arts scene.

The neighborhood where Schoen intended to set up shop has an old-world character. The corridor between the Mississippi River and Marshall Street on the east bank, as well as on the other side of the river, has long been home to a host of lumber companies, concrete manufacturers, scrapyards, and other heavy industry concerns that recall the sawmills and foundries that had sprung up with the settling and industrialization of the city. Conceptual plans for recasting the upper river with more parkland and so-called mixed-use development had been bandied about at city hall for years, and Schoen was given to understand that his project, an innovative union of art and commerce, was just the kind of light-industrial use city leaders wanted to encourage along the riverfront. The MCDA happily sold the two-acre site to Schoen for one dollar, and he set about building his dream.

Schoen, a graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design who is now 36 years old, had founded a set-design business called Harmony Scenic Studios in 1985. The new building would house under one roof that business, a sound stage ("The Harmony Box"), and office space for independent film and video companies. As the project proceeded, Schoen made several accommodations to the MCDA's requests, including that the building be set back a good distance from Marshall to allow for a possible widening of the street and the addition of bike paths.

As Schoen recalls, his undertaking was praised by civic and political leaders alike as the harbinger of a new generation--vital, enterprising, plugged into a high-tech future--in a neighborhood in need of a boost. "The spirit of our negotiations was to work with them in their future plans," he says. "They looked upon us as the beginning of redevelopment. We took over blighted industrial land and privately redeveloped it. We were sought after. There was lots of discussion and lots of methodical planning that went into us building here."

By the time Harmony opened its doors at 1414 Marshall St. NE in the fall of 1995, the cost of the project had climbed to $1.7 million--about $250,000 over the original budget--and had taken a year and a half longer than Schoen and his backers had counted on. In addition to financing from the bank and a small-business loan, which Schoen signed personal guarantees for, the MCDA provided a $150,000 low-interest loan on favorable terms: Schoen wouldn't have to start paying it back until 2001. The agency kicked in the money to help offset the costs of cleaning up polluted fill that an MCDA contractor had dumped on the site.

Clad in a denim jacket, Schoen beams with parental pride as he walks through the building. From the street Harmony looks deceptively small and bunkerlike, but the sound-stage area inside is a 60- by 80-foot room with 31-foot-high ceilings, and the windows in the upstairs offices grace the rooms with gold, late summer light.

For all the risk he had taken on a short four years ago, Schoen says, he enjoyed the support of Third Ward city council member Joe Biernat. Schoen recalls that Biernat, whose ward includes the upper riverfront, was consistently supportive of the project; at one point, during a delay caused by MCDA red tape, Biernat dashed off a note to the head of the agency telling him, in essence, to get the project moving. "The reason I supported the Harmony Scenic development," Biernat says today, "was I believed that film and video was the way to go in this area."

And until now, it might have been. Schoen says his sound-stage business has done quite well and remains busy--it's been used by local and national ad agencies to shoot everything from Gold'n Plump Chicken commercials to Alanis Morissette and Tori Amos spots for Best Buy. As for the other enterprises in the building, the local production of commercials has been stagnant of late, and Schoen concedes that his set-design business has suffered and accrued debt. His financial troubles, coupled with a recent health crisis in his family, prompted Schoen to put Harmony on the market last spring.

Unfortunately for Schoen, his property sits just a little too close to the Mississippi River. That puts him smack-dab in the middle of a corridor along Minneapolis's upper riverfront that city officials now say they have other plans for--plans that don't appear to include Harmony. While nothing is definite at this point, Biernat says he thinks high-density housing might be the next best thing to occupy the land at 1414 Marshall St.

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