Cedar Riverside Opportunity Center set to open this spring

City officials and community members attended the groundbreaking of the Cedar-Riverside Opportunity Center on Friday.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges speaks at the groundbreaking event for the Cedar Riverside Opportunity Center on Oct. 29, 2016. The center will work to help community members, many of whom are East African immigrants, find jobs.

Maddy Fox

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges speaks at the groundbreaking event for the Cedar Riverside Opportunity Center on Oct. 29, 2016. The center will work to help community members, many of whom are East African immigrants, find jobs.

Ryan Faircloth

A project over two years in the making — aimed at cutting high unemployment in Cedar-Riverside — is finally taking shape.

The neighborhood held a groundbreaking ceremony Friday for the $950,000 Cedar-Riverside Opportunity Center project, which is set to open this spring, and will connect community members to education and job training. City officials and community members packed into the future home of the long-awaited center to celebrate its inauguration.

At the ceremony, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges emphasized the project’s importance to the neighborhood, saying it will help boost employment.

“This is a culmination of the vision that comes out of the community itself,” she said.

Still, it was challenging to convince potential donors of the project’s significance, said Ward 6 City Council Member Abdi Warsame.

Some City Council members and the county board had to be convinced about the project’s importance, and the process of piecing together funding and finalizing the logistics of the center were prolonged, said Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis.

Funding began to roll in from foundations after the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County made pledged contributions, Warsame said.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said he backed the project in part because 40 percent of county employees will be eligible for retirement in the next five years.

Other employers are also facing future vacancies, he said, which creates a chance to diversify the workforce.

“We have a moment here of opportunity to remake the workforce of the 21st century,” McLaughlin said.

The center hopes to connect with nine employers — with a combined workforce of more than 30,000 employees — to help close the neighborhood’s employment gap.

Last week, employers had 2,100 job openings, McLaughlin said.

If the center partners with these organizations, both the employment and poverty rates in the community will decrease, he said.

Warsame — who lead the initial push for the project back in 2014 — said his office came up with the idea for the hub, largely to address the unemployment and equity gap in the community.

The unemployment rate in the Cedar-Riverside community is about 17 percent, compared to the citywide rate of 3 to 4 percent, Warsame said.

“The biggest thing was skill development and getting people into jobs — and that was our focus from the beginning,” he said.

Companies who’ve already shown interest in hiring community members include Medtronic and Amazon, Warsame said.

Abdi Barkat, a St. Paul resident who has family living in the neighborhood, said the community needed a project that would connect them to prospective employers.

With the opportunity center being located across from the Brian Coyle Center, he said residents without transportation will still have access to the center’s resources.

Ilhan Omar, candidate for State House District 60B, said opportunity gaps exist because of the neighborhood’s isolation, but believes the community is excited about the center’s programs.

Abdi Salah, a senior policy aide for Warsame, said he’s seen the opportunity gap firsthand, adding that more than 50 community members come into Warsame’s office each year looking for jobs.

Members of the community find pride in working to earn their living, he said, and aren’t interested in handouts.

“The biggest way you can value a human being is to give them an opportunity to earn a living,” Salah said.