Academic Misconduct

To protect his school, Summit CEO Louis King is prepared to litigate
Geoffrey P. Kroll

As he talks, Louis King paces around his office at Summit Academy OIC, a vocational training center that takes up two city blocks on the near north side of Minneapolis. Over the year the Summit president and CEO says he has seen the city break a lot of promises concerning the Hollman redevelopment, a housing project to be built on a 73-acre plot of public land across the street from the school. Still, King believed the agreement his organization reached with Minneapolis city officials last November would be different. He believed the city would stick to its word. He was wrong.

The back and forth between Summit OIC and the city has been going on for three years. Believing their new housing community would look best with homes and apartments on both sides of the street, the city wanted Summit to move from its current locale on Olson Memorial Highway. Having just spent $2 million in federal grant money to renovate the training center, King and his board of directors weren't wild about the idea. But they knew that the city was not going to drop the issue, so the nonprofit's lawyers drew up papers outlining what it would take to make the deal. The terms were simple. The board wanted Summit to end up somewhere on Olson Memorial Highway, where it would remain visible and easily accessible. Additionally, they wanted the city to pay all moving costs, find an alternative site, and help build or renovate the new space.

King argues that there was nothing unreasonable about the demands. Summit is not beholden to the city; it is privately owned. To take it over, the lawyers argued, the city should have to pay a fair price. Minneapolis housing officials balked, however--not unusual, considering how other businesses and nonprofits have been bossed and bullied during the past half-decade.

The Hollman redevelopment is the result of a housing-discrimination lawsuit that pitted the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) against residents of its north-side projects, who argued that the city should be providing a better quality of housing that was less segregated. The suit, named for resident Lucy Hollman, was settled in 1995. The projects were to be demolished and replaced. But since the wrecking balls finished their part in late 1999, the redevelopment hasn't progressed as the city promised it would. Displaced residents have had to fend for themselves, and organizations such as Summit OIC have been living in limbo.

After King and his cohorts made their initial demands, Minneapolis officials indicated in public meetings that they would give them due consideration. Then early last year the city proposed that they tear down a building at 555 Girard Terrace--home to MPHA's building and maintenance crews--and construct a new home for the Summit school. The deal was attractive to the city because it would save them the cost of acquiring new land. But while Summit's board was considering the idea, a map of the Hollman redevelopment was made public showing the school on Girard. Apparently the deal was sealed. And King and others viewed the public unveiling as presumptuous. Talks resumed in the fall and both sides finally agreed that relocating to the Girard site was a good idea, providing the move came at no cost to Summit OIC.

The agreement was a welcome relief to King and Summit's board, who firmly believe that for the school to remain a part of the north-side community, it had to be set apart in a building large enough to accommodate the school's ever-increasing student body. In addition to being a stable presence in an embattled area, Summit has helped residents who are unemployed or underemployed to obtain the skills necessary to make a better life. King says that more than 300 adults and adolescents attend classes there every day.

Winter 2001 passed without any further communication on the matter. "No news was good news," King figured. But behind the scenes the ground was shifting. "It was Valentine's Day and I was talking with this guy I know and he said he'd heard our deal was off," King recalls. "He said he'd heard a rumor that even though the city still wanted us to move, there was no money to buy us out, no money to help us move, and the site we were supposed to move to was being used for something else. I couldn't believe it."

King immediately contacted Chuck Lutz, director of special projects for the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA). He confirmed King's worst fear. His friend's story was true and no one at Summit had been contacted; the city didn't see the need. As far as housing officials were concerned, November's talks had been just that--talks. No promises had been made. No papers had been signed. In the interim, city officials had also decided to leave the building at 555 Girard Terr. intact and use it to house the Glenwood Lyndale Community Center, KMOJ-FM, and the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center--other organizations that must move because of the Hollman redevelopment. There are no plans in place to accommodate Summit OIC.

"It just didn't make sense to tear down the MPHA building," says Minneapolis City Council president Jackie Cherryhomes, in whose Fifth Ward the redevelopment is being done. "Moving these groups into the building meant we could continue to use it and that seemed like a good idea."

What Cherryhomes and other city officials perceive to be a good business decision, however, has King's organization fearing the city will claim eminent domain over the school's property, which could force them out of the neighborhood. To claim eminent domain the city simply needs to prove it's in the public's best interest to take the land, then pay fair market price. King says if it comes to that, he and his board will fight Minneapolis in court. "Basically [the city] told me they have no money and there is no site for us to move to. But they still want to build here," King says. "If that's not an invitation to go to court, I don't know what is. What do they think we're going to do, just take this? Just let them take our property? Our parking lot is packed full of cars. This is where our students are. We don't want to leave this community."

Cherryhomes agrees that Summit is a community asset. But she claims the Hollman plan just doesn't work with a school taking up two blocks of street-front property. She still believes there is a way to make both sides happy and stay out of court, but she won't go into detail. A sit-down between King, Cherryhomes, Lutz, and other concerned parties is scheduled to take place at Summit OIC on Thursday, April 5. The city plans to present some new options. And, according to Cherryhomes, there will be no talk of eminent domain. "I won't even go there," Cherryhomes promises.

Chuck Lutz says he would prefer to find common ground. If it comes down to it, though, he says the city will take the school by any means necessary: "In order to complete the master plan for the area a new location must be found for Summit. We're very clear about the fact that housing must go there. Declaring eminent domain is clearly everyone's last preference, but it could come to that, yes."

King doesn't have high hopes for the next meeting. As always, though, he's willing to give Minneapolis leaders a chance to do the right thing. "We haven't been communicating with them since 1998 for nothing," he says wearily. "We've always hoped this could be worked out. But it's like we're dealing with people who will say whatever they've got to say to get to the next square. It doesn't matter if what they're telling you is true or not. They just need you to buy it so they can get what they want. They do that until they've moved you right off the board. Well, we're through moving."

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