Something New Under the Sun

Midtown Global Market tries to forge new rules for ethnic markets and eateries

It's not unusual to see kids skittering and dancing around the Midtown Global Market—to rhymes of their own making, or the beat of their own sandals racing across the tiled floor, or even occasionally to live music. Like tonight: A reggae band is performing cover tunes that stir kids who have never met before to form pulsing clusters of arms and legs.

Such a gathering spot where kids could groove amid food smells gleaned from all over the globe wasn't always envisioned for the first floor of the former Sears building in south Minneapolis. In fact, in late 2003, Edina-based national grocery chain Nash Finch was in negotiations with the city to turn the 40,000-square-foot space into an Avanza (Spanish for "advance") Supermarket, the major retailer's ethnic-foods store. Such a move, neighborhood residents and business owners argued, could have crushed the ethnic restaurants and small businesses built by thousands of people in the burgeoning area over the last decade.

To wit: When the Sears building first shuttered in 1994, Lake Street held only about four small Latino businesses. Today about 200 Latino businesses dot the busy stretch of Lake from First Avenue to Hiawatha. Mercado Central, which opened in 1999, houses nearly 40 of them. After learning about Nash Finch's plans mostly by accident, John Flory and Ramon Leon of the Latino Economic Development Center of Minnesota (LEDC) immediately organized a meeting with about 40 area Latino business owners. Council member Robert Lilligren and Jim White, the project coordinator with the city's department of Community Planning and Economic Development, showed up to represent the city.

Nick Vlcek

"The business owners were very upset," recalls Flory. "They had spent more than 10 years building up businesses in a once-depressed area. Now the city was inviting corporations to come in and take the Latino market they had developed."

Immediately, Latino entrepreneurs and the LEDC developed a committee to devise a viable project of their own. They sought out other nonprofit organizations, such as the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC), a local group that supports emerging entrepreneurs in low-income neighborhoods with business development. After many City Council meetings and signed neighborhood resolutions, the two organizations convinced the city to include concepts for a community-focused global market in their requests for proposals to developers. Soon, the African Development Center and the Powderhorn Phillips Cultural Wellness Center joined the LEDC and NDC in the bid to turn a piece of the old building into an organic expression of the neighborhood.

Members of the four groups visited markets in Los Angeles and New York City, the Pike Place Market in Seattle, the 100-plus-year-old Reading Market in Philadelphia, and the Grandville Market in Vancouver. And they all agreed they wanted to do something different, albeit lofty, with this market: They wanted the entire community to be represented in one of the largest redevelopment deals south Minneapolis has ever seen. So they pushed for their goals with the city and potential developer Ryan Companies. Finally, in late 2004, Ryan Companies signed on to the $190 million development deal of the former Sears building, which, along with the nearly $18 million Midtown Global Market, includes Allina headquarters and residential developments by Sherman and Associates and Project for Pride in Living. (The NDC has a 25 percent stake in the market.)

The plans for the market didn't come without snags. The initial idea was that 10 or so Latino entrepreneurs would turn the space into a small grocery store. Atum Azzahir of the ADC remembers that as the concept phase was percolating, discussions frequently grew heated. "Let me tell you, it was riddled, riddled with hard work," she says. "At any moment it could have all blown apart." In the end, Azzahir says, it was the dedication of everyone involved that dictated the eventual shape of the multicultural, multi-use project. That's the striking thing about the group of four organizations: No one, it seems, wants to take any bit of credit for a single part of the Midtown Global Market. Everyone cites someone else's hard work, whether it was the neighborhood residents who pushed the city to develop the vacant Sears building or the Latino entrepreneurs at the meeting that night in late 2003.

Chris Heitmann, a senior associate at the urban planning organization Projects for Public Spaces, says such a neighborhood-focused public market is unique to the Twin Cities. "It really is an incredible model," he says. "Most public markets that are being developed today are in downtown areas and cater to an upwardly mobile clientele." He notes the caviar bar, for example, at the new San Francisco Ferry Terminal. "There aren't too many projects that have the level of commitment the Midtown Global Market does. This was not a top-down effort for the city to build a market for the employees of Allina," Heitmann says. "Instead it's a collaborative, grassroots effort with a deep commitment to the surrounding communities along Lake Street. That's really impressive."

To survive, the Midtown Global Market will need the support of not only the immediate and surrounding communities, but Allina employees as well. And so far, a year-round indoor market is an unproven concept in the Twin Cities. The nearly $18 million for the market includes the costs of the purchase, renovation, and majority of the shared kitchen equipment and plumbing. And the more than 50 tenants invested nearly $2 million into the project, only part of which came from city loans.

JoAnna Hicks, the Global Market's real estate development director, says she estimates the potential annual revenues from the market at $28 to $35 million. At the other end of the economic spectrum, she adds, the Midtown Global Market needs to generate approximately $12.5 million in sales every year to stay in business. In an ideal world, Hicks says, the public market would need to see 1,500 visitors a day.

"We know that it needs to serve both residential and business customers, but it also needs to be a unique destination," Hicks says. "The most critical piece is that it serves as a local community gathering place." In the visits to the public markets across the United States, the groups learned a crucial lesson: Don't just fill the spaces, but hold out for the right variety of products and businesses.

Hicks says the NDC is currently focused on creating a strong mix of grocery items, from meats to produce. And the Midtown Global Market is seeking a bakery and a specialty cheese and wine shop in an effort to diversify the offerings. In the next few months, Hicks adds, they hope to open a sit-down sushi and Asian-fusion restaurant.

Though it's a risky venture, the optimism surrounding the project is palpable. "Asian entrepreneurs were a large part of the revitalization of Nicollet and Eat Street," Flory notes. "Many cities are beginning to realize that immigrant entrepreneurship will redevelop places other people have given up on. To us, the Sears building is symbolic of what Late Street will be in the future."

Also in this issue: Eat Locally, Eat Globally: In which a widely anticipated boondoggle turns out to be a boon for Minneapolisís urban fabric, by Dara Moskowitz

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