The Green Institute faces possible foreclosure after 15 years

It was ahead of its time, but now the nonprofit has a looming debt problem

ANNIE YOUNG WENT to bed exhausted. For more than 12 years, the large, outspoken woman had been rallying the troops in Minneapolis's poorest neighborhood, fighting a proposed county garbage-transfer station. Residents didn't need more heavy truck traffic, toxic fumes, and pollution. Phillips was already a "dumping ground," and the neighborhood didn't want anybody else's trash.

It was environmental racism at its worst, remembers Young, now a park commissioner. The early 1990s had brought a flood of new blood to Phillips. African Americans, Hmong, Somalis, and Latinos crowded the streets that already housed the city's main Native American population. The median income was around $12,000 a year. More than 60 percent of women and 40 percent of men were unemployed.

People were sick, Young says, her voice reverberating like a preacher's in the nearly empty conference room where she sits. There was lead. There was diabetes. There was cancer. Parts of the neighborhood were called "Arsenic Triangle," and years later the Environmental Protection Agency sanctioned the nickname, confirming high levels of poison in the soil at the east end.

Annie Young led the fight against a proposed garbage transfer station using a Legos model that later became a 64,000-square-foot reality when the Green Institute broke ground for the Phillips Eco Enterprise Center.
Amber Procaccini
Annie Young led the fight against a proposed garbage transfer station using a Legos model that later became a 64,000-square-foot reality when the Green Institute broke ground for the Phillips Eco Enterprise Center.
Joyce Wisdom left the Green Institute after nearly a decade with the organization. In her mind, it was no longer financially sustainable under Krause's leadership.
Nick Vlcek
Joyce Wisdom left the Green Institute after nearly a decade with the organization. In her mind, it was no longer financially sustainable under Krause's leadership.

"We were surrounded by pollution," she says. "We had so much pollution and so many sick people that a garbage-transfer station wasn't what we needed."

Then, in 1993, Young had a dream about windmills, a glass building, and a pond. It was clear to her that it was a vision representing neighborhood sustainability. A self-sustainable office building could be built, creating jobs and alternative energy while promoting the green lifestyle. In a way, she thought, the building would be just what the people of Phillips needed. If successful, it could stand on its own.

For the months that followed, Young carried around a display of the edifice built from Legos. She started preaching "green" and "sustainability" to anyone who would listen. People thought she was crazy.

"Sustainability was just a little, tiny seed then," she says. "It was not an overused word like it is now. Then, when you said 'green,' people would say, 'What are you talking about?' They didn't know."

In December 1993, the people triumphed; the county commissioners voted down the transfer station, and Young, who that year formed the Green Institute, realized her Lego model would become a reality. With $415,000 in start-up funds from the city, the Institute would work to create jobs, improve the quality of life, and enhance the urban environment.

Its first major project would be a ReUse Center. As part of its commitment to reducing solid waste, the Institute would open a store of reusable building materials and household items available for resale.

"We were able to say to the county, 'We know what we are going to do with that land, and we are offering something better,'" Young says.

At the ReUse Center's 1995 grand opening, Sen. Paul Wellstone joined the hundreds of community members to celebrate. "If it can be done in Phillips, it can be done anywhere," the congressman told the crowd.

The Institute's success reverberated throughout the streets. "Every politician was there, every community person. There had been stories in the paper; it was sort of the first of its kind," says Joyce Wisdom, who became the ReUse Center's manager in 1995. "We were the national experts. I went to Pittsburg and helped set up a Construction Junction there; I talked to people in France about setting up re-stores."

At a neighborhood meeting when someone suggested a Home Depot for a vacant lot, the audience booed. "They said, 'We don't need a Home Depot, we got the ReUse Center,'" recalls Wisdom. "My jaw dropped. If you told me two years earlier that people would be comparing the ReUse Center to Home Depot, I would have told you you were out of your mind, but how proud was I?"

In November 1997, Young's glass building became a reality when the Green Institute broke ground for the Phillips Eco-Enterprise Center, a 64,000-square-foot commercial industrial facility on the site originally intended for the garbage transfer station. Local and national experts flocked to visit the estimated $5.2 million project.

"We believe it was probably the first speculative green industrial building in the world," says Corey Brinkema, who supervised the design, financing, and construction of the building as the Institute's business development director from 1996 to 1999. "It was a big deal. Green buildings to that point, and even to this day, were largely being built by owner-occupants. To build something speculative was quite extraordinary because you had to then sell those green-building attributes to the tenants and hope that they would, in fact, pay for them."

A vanguard of the green movement, the building was made from reused and recycled materials. The Center incorporated energy conservation equipment and geothermal heating and cooling into its utilities. Eventually it installed the largest solar array in the Midwest and later became the prototype for the LEED certification movement that is present in nearly every modern architecture project in the United States today.

Now, a decade after its opening, the building is up for sale and the Green Institute is facing possible foreclosure, having accrued millions of dollars in debt that it admits it currently cannot pay.

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