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Who owns property and businesses in Minneapolis? What is the process for an idea to become a successful company? How many people live where they work? Does any of this matter?  

If you have asked these questions before you are not alone.  It is often unclear how that new restaurant or Apple Store popped up on your corner, and the decision making process around who gets an opportunity and who does not is just as murky.  

The Minneapolis Department of Community Planning & Economic Development (CPED) “works to equitably grow a sustainable city with more people and more jobs through thoughtful design and enhanced environment.” 

This group of individuals are among the highest paid in City Hall, and hold a lot of power in the direction our city is moving toward.  In order to start a business in Minneapolis you must meet CPED’s permit, license, and zoning requirements.  

If a Request for Proposal (RFP) is released for city-owned property, entrepreneurs can submit a proposal to begin redevelopment. There are general conditions for RFPs including that there is equal opportunity for anyone, there is non-discrimination toward any applicants, and that the city has the right to reject any proposal.  

Recently a RFP was released for a commercial property in North Minneapolis. A historic firehouse at 1704 Lowry Ave. N.  was up for redevelopment, and a group of North Minneapolis residents recently submitted their own proposal. Shortly after the submission deadline, and a community engagement meeting, CPED decided to move forward with the other proposal for a boxing gym by Ryan Burnet.  The son of Ralph Burnet of Coldwell Banker Burnet owns several successful hotels and restaurants in town. It’s inspiring that there was such a quick and motivated response to maintain a historic building in North Minneapolis for a positive community purpose. 

But what was not communicated to the public are the implications of limited access to land, business development and capital for communities of color.

The road to economic progress for communities of color is driven by leaders within the community creating innovative businesses that maintain jobs and resources in their neighborhoods.  An inherent problem with the façade of equity in Minneapolis is the development of commercial and residential property in communities of color by individuals who do not live in or represent those respective communities. 

According to Census data, prior to the economic downturn of the Great Recession, around 31,000 businesses or only 6 percent of all businesses in Minnesota were owned by people of color.  Of these businesses the majority of them earn less than $1 million in annual revenue.  So we use the word equity and a narrative of local leadership development, but are we actually following through with this vision with integrity?

Chaun Webster was born and raised in North Minneapolis. He and his partner Verna, who is a teacher, have always had an appreciation for education, arts and community.  Years ago they teamed up with community members and began building library houses in their neighborhood in North Minneapolis. “Conceptually we have been building creativity and community for years, and the physical space opened June 7, 2014,” said Chaun in sharing the origin of his bookstore Ancestry Books at 2205 Lowry Ave. N.

The warm and welcoming space is filled with work from indigenous authors and authors of color, set on beautiful mahogany stained bookshelves constructed by students from Juxtaposition Arts. The bookstore is doing well, but is about more than just the sale of goods to customers. “This is a community space and you don’t have to buy anything when you walk in here. You can just sit down, read a book, and have a conversation,” Chaun stated.  

This philosophy has carried on with a new endeavor by Chaun and other community members in the Firehouse Collective.  The group is comprised of North Minneapolis residents ranging from business owners, filmmakers, artists, and community leaders. The proposal developed by the collective included an artist’s cooperative space, focused on supporting ongoing development projects in the community with intentional engagement with communities of color as well as low income and immigrant residents.. “We need a mechanism to hold the city accountable to give the community decision making power in development, and to create incentives for pathways to community ownership,” explained Chaun.  

The Firehouse Collective recognized many issues in economic development in Minneapolis prior to submitting their proposal including the disproportionate amount of tax dollars being spent in certain institutions outside of their community, the lack of measureable ways of assessing equity in community and economic development, and the RFP process as whole.  There was very little time and community engagement from the day the RFP was released and when an official decision was made. When under resourced community members compete with professionals with ample money, time, experience, and relationships it becomes very unlikely for any local businesses in communities of color and lower income communities to get off the ground. The chips are stacked against them in an unfair game with no real tangible language or measures around equity.

Casey Dzieweczynski, a senior project coordinator at CPED said: “The decision to go with the proposal from Ryan Burnet was due to his group’s experience, financial wherewithal, and ability to perform.”  The two proposals were the only submitted for the firehouse, and he reported that if the Firehouse Collective were the sole submission CPED may have been able to provide more time and resources to the group.  

“This has made our office look at our processes to ensure that it is fair for everyone.  We are planning on looking at other options with the Firehouse Collective in mid May due to the high energy they have around the project,” Dzieweczynski said.

Seattle utilizes a Racial Equity Toolkit, which includes systems to measure progress with community defined outcome areas in jobs, education, criminal justice, and more. This includes intentional processes for involving community members and stakeholders in analyzing changes made by the city to avoid bias or lack of access.  The toolkit also has evaluative measures for accountability of city leaders.  What, if any of these mechanisms are currently being practiced in Minneapolis?

The structural barriers to social and economic progress for communities of color are perpetuated by a fundamental paradox in the nonprofit industrial complex. One point of view for addressing the racial disparities that exist in our city is to create more nonprofit social services, public housing and enabling systems of oppression disguised as opportunity.  This industry has prevented many people of color from ever truly gaining self-sufficiency by keeping them dependent on a trickle down funding system with big banks at its source.  This huge system has grown substantially over the past 30 years while never truly shifting the dynamics of power and wealth, and in fact exacerbating income inequality.  

Another perspective on addressing these disparities is to support business and economic development in communities of color.  Many of our city’s elected leaders ran political campaigns on an “equity” agenda focused on this vision.  However, we are seeing that business as usual, and the barriers to access, such as in the example of the Firehouse Collective continue today.  

It is time for the leaders of Minneapolis to move beyond equity rhetoric and begin to implement real, measureable tools for addressing disparities in community and economic development.  

I hope CPED continues to work with groups such as the Firehouse Collective to build their own community solutions. If they fear that community-led efforts will not be able to perform like these other established groups then they should allow the community to decide what performance measures are important to them.  Because for those fighting for a true equitable city they have nothing to fear, and nothing to lose but their chains.   

Ryan Stopera is a social worker and community organizer in Minneapolis. He is on the board of directors of MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and the Lyndale Neighborhood Association.