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North Minneapolis green energy hub wins $1.6 million grant

Jamez Staples's project earned a $1.6 million grant from the Met Council in 2018. The funds are finally being released to him.

Jamez Staples's project earned a $1.6 million grant from the Met Council in 2018. The funds are finally being released to him. Star Tribune

In 2017, first-time developer Jamez Staples took out a private loan to purchase a former state workforce center on Plymouth Avenue in north Minneapolis for a future green energy training center.

Minnesota needs to reduce its carbon emissions, but reports show the state is facing a looming workforce shortage. Prior to COVID-19, the Center for Energy and Environment reported 85 percent of energy efficiency employers had difficulty finding skilled labor – a problem that will only worsen as 29 percent of Minnesota’s skilled construction workers retire by 2026.

If the state doesn’t find a way to fill this workforce gap, it’ll never meet the goals outlined in its 2005 Next Generation Energy Act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050. The state is on track to fail, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

With the Minneapolis Regional Apprenticeship Training Center (RATC), Staples envisioned training the next generation’s green energy workers while catalyzing opportunity in north Minneapolis.

In 2018, Staples partnered with the city to apply for a Metropolitan Council Livable Communities grant. Their application stated the training center would start in the existing building at 1200 Plymouth Ave. N., and then expand into a newly constructed, 100,000-square-foot facility that would provide career and technical education for Minneapolis Public School students and adults. The Met Council granted the project $1.6 million for rooftop solar panels, an electric vehicle charging station, rain gardens, and geothermal heating and cooling, among other sustainable designs.

Then the project hit a few roadblocks.

Although the Livable Communities grant application listed Minneapolis Public Schools as a project partner that would hold classes in the RATC, the district recently decided to create its own tech hub at North High School, and doesn’t need to lease space from Staples.

And according to the city, miscommunication tied up the $1.6 million for two years.

Under the terms of the grant, Staples would have to rehab the existing building on Plymouth Avenue and break ground on the second facility within two years. He never intended to start the second phase of construction within that time frame, yet if the project failed to meet that element, the city would be forced to repay the Met Council the $1.6 million in full. Realizing that RATC would take longer to develop than the time allowed by the grant, the city had to resubmit its Livable Communities application to the Met Council.

Luckily for Staples, RATC’s revised application still scored high enough to earn the $1.6 million. The Met Council confirmed it will transfer the funds within 35 days.

“I'm positive and upbeat and excited about the progress that we've made,” Staples said. “Despite the challenges that we've run into, one way or another this project will get done, and it will provide the necessary access and opportunity for training in emerging sectors for the youth of this area as well as the broader region to get the skill set to participate, and become workforce and college ready.”

Staples has agreed to operate the property for at least five years, and report to the city each year how many people are receiving services there. Staples will have to complete the RATC’s renewable energy upgrades and start leasing space to tenants that can offer career training and education. Staples has also agreed to help the University of Minnesota on coursework to engage young people of color in green energy.