U looks to help on north side

by Ahnalese Rushmann

The University hopes to finalize plans in November to purchase the Penn Plymouth Shopping Center in north Minneapolis as part of the University Northside Partnership.

The plan was reviewed by the Board of Regents’ facilities committee at its Sept. 6 meeting.

The University would renovate the building in order to house a variety of University programs that are part of the Northside Partnership. The partnership’s goals are oriented around using University resources to assist the north Minneapolis community, according to its Web site.

Professor Scott McConnell, director of community engagement at the Center for Early Education and Development, said it’s important to have a University building in the community for a visible public presence.

“It makes it easier for neighbors and community leaders to contact (people) that are working with the University,” he said.

McConnell, whose work focuses on child development, said CEED has been working with families in north Minneapolis for more than 20 years.

Working with families and childcare providers, along with community organizations and Hennepin County, will comprise most of the research in McConnell’s area. A main focus would be on school readiness of children, he said.

McConnell would be one of three University faculty members with larger roles in the beginning stage of the center. Professor Dante Cicchetti of the Institute of Childhood Development and Craig Taylor, director of the Office for Business and Community Economic Development, would also oversee parts of the center.

Taylor said the center would coordinate University resources to help support small businesses, as well as nonprofit groups in the area. Plans for a student entrepreneurship program are also being discussed, he said.

Taylor said there are plans for a community business venture in the center, like for a food retail store and cooperative.

The venture might hold an opportunity to include the University Extension Service in food and nutrition programs, he said.

Gary Cunningham, former CEO of North Point Health and Wellness Center, a partner in the project, said Cicchetti’s work is a big draw for the center.

Some community members have expressed concern over the presence of Cicchetti’s research program in the community, Cunningham said. In general, some people tend to be suspicious of large institutions, he said.

Cicchetti was unavailable for comment as of press time.

The Northside Residents Redevelopment Council, a nonprofit neighborhood organization, conducted a vote last summer on whether to endorse Cicchetti’s work in the area.

Of the 484 total voters, 68 percent voted in favor.

Don Samuels, Ward 5 city councilman, said he was hopeful and grateful for the University’s initiative in north Minneapolis.

“I look forward (to the center) with great anticipation,” he said.

Historically speaking, the relationship between north Minneapolis and the University has not been good, Samuels said, since predominantly black neighborhoods and largely white institutions can have bad rapport.

There’s distrust in the community but it is not a widespread concern, he said.

Samuels said universities nationwide should be addressing poverty, crime and social dysfunction issues.

“We are giving the University open arms to a new day,” Samuels said. “Let’s let our guard down so we do not spoil this opportunity, which will probably not come for a long time again and demonstrate that things can change.”

“We can benefit greatly from this service and relationship,” he said.

McConnell said from CEED’s perspective, the center will help facilitate better connections with local families and community leaders. This is just the beginning, he said.

“The University has a lot more to offer and a lot more to learn than just those particular programs (that will be in the building),” McConnell said.

Susan Carlson Weinberg, director of real estate for the University, said the regents have to approve the $1.25 million deal, which will hopefully take place at the November meeting.

Approximately 65 percent of the 2.19-acre property on Plymouth Avenue North, between Oliver and Newton avenues north, is currently occupied, Weinberg said.

The University is offering relocation assistance to some of the current tenants, she said.