Como worries about losses

Vadim Lavrusik

In his State of the City address last month, Mayor R.T. Rybak spoke of the urgency of keeping the middle class thriving in Minneapolis, using Southeast Como as an example.

But with recent changes in the neighborhood, Como could lose exactly what Rybak spoke about – its middle-class families and homeowners.

The Tuttle Community School will close later this year; the Southeast Library closed in December. The Southeast Como Improvement Association’s future is uncertain as Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds are set to expire in 2009, which will end funding to programs that help improve the neighborhood.

And as homes are continually converted into rental properties, longtime residents, families and homeowners find it difficult to find an incentive to stay.

“It seems like when we hit rock bottom, something else comes down the line,” said James De Sota, neighborhood coordinator for SECIA.

“People are thinking about moving out,” De Sota said. “A lot are people who have moved in five years ago.”

Not only are people thinking of moving out, but with no school and library, few families are going to want to move in, De Sota said.

‘A heartbeat of a community’

The Minneapolis Board of Education’s decision to close Tuttle Community School two weeks ago shocked and disappointed many in the community.

“A school is a heartbeat of a community,” De Sota said. “So many people that live here have some tie to Tuttle.”

With the loss of a community school, many families will have to commute to Pratt in the nearby Prospect Park neighborhood, which won’t be able to handle the dramatic increase in numbers, said Bill Dane, 20-year Como resident and SECIA board member.

Dane said many young families that have been moving into the neighborhood will move out once their kids reach school age.

“We don’t have a community school; they are going to pack up and go,” he said. “If I am a parent, I am not going to move into Como.”

Many say that the closing of Tuttle was rushed, and the community had no time to be heard.

Greg Isola, parent liaison at Tuttle who has three kids attending the school, said the announcement to close Tuttle seemed to come out of nowhere.

“I think the process of closing it was really rushed,” Isola said. “We are still catching our breath a little.”

On March 20, the school board announced a list of schools that could close; Tuttle was on the list. The board voted to close the school April 12, he said.

“We had a hard time to advocate for this,” he said. “We’re not really sure what we’re going to do.”

Chris Stewart, the only board member who voted against the Tuttle closing, said the board didn’t take adequate time to consider the closing’s impact on the east side.

“Closing schools is putting the cart before the horse,” Stewart said.

The closing of the school will affect the neighborhood’s ability to bring in young families.

“Families want schools Ö you need schools and libraries and basic civil institutions,” he said. “This neighborhood now has neither.”

“So whoever your elected officials are – who are allowing your core assets to be dispersed – are really admitting to you as a citizen that they are disinvesting from your area,” he said.

One of the dilemmas also is figuring out how the building will be used, if at all.

De Sota said the neighborhood is concerned about it being left vacant and hopes the facility can be used for something positive.

Some of the options include using it for a day care or Southeast Library alternative site, he said. But the decision of what the building will be used for is up to the school district, which hopes to make a decision this summer.

Southeast Library

The Southeast Library that closed in January remains closed.

The decision has affected the neighborhood residents, who have to travel elsewhere to study or get a book.

But the hope for the library is in sight with the recent vote by the Hennepin County commissioners last week, who recommended that Minneapolis merge its struggling library system with the county’s more secure system.

The merger decision is now at the Legislature, which will vote within the next month.

Mayor R.T. Rybak said if the merger goes through he has committed city dollars to keep the library open.

Improving properties

To help keep the middle-class families in Como, the city has focused its efforts on improving the conditions of homes by cracking down on problem properties.

The city inspections department is currently focused on conducting an inspections sweep in the neighborhood.

Rybak said the city is holding problem property owners in Como to a higher standard.

“It is extremely important right now to send a strong message that the good homeowners and renters of Southeast Como are supported by a city that’s going to come down much harder on property owners and renters that aren’t following the laws and having a negative impact on this neighborhood,” he said.

Over-occupancy is also an issue because it deteriorates the condition of the homes by having too many people living in them, he said.

To decrease turnover in Como, Rybak said he has talked to President Bob Bruininks about the University having more ownership in the neighborhood so that more homes are occupied by University staff and graduate students.

“This area is a very important part of the city that is having some significant transition issues,” Rybak said. “And we’re very focused on partnering with the neighborhood to make it better.”

Neighborhood funding

The Neighborhood Revitalization Program has been able to fund the SECIA staff and many of its projects that have provided local businesses with grants, improved safety and piloted environmental friendly projects.

NRP funding is set to expire in 2009, but neighborhood leaders said the association’s funds will probably run dry before then, and next year SECIA could lose its staff.

Cam Gordon, 2nd Ward councilman, said earlier this month he motioned for the city to study options for NRP funding, but it was voted down by all except two council members.

Gordon said without the program some neighborhoods that weren’t volunteer-based before NRP could suffer.

“This will potentially be very difficult for some neighborhood organizations,” he said. “It is a bit up in the air right now.”

The council needs to start looking at options now, before funding runs out and it’s too late, he said.

Crisis in leadership

Neighborhood residents and leaders feel there is a lack of leadership to address such issues.

De Sota said city officials point the finger at budget shortfalls, but they aren’t being proactive in coming up with a plan to address the issue and how funding could be restored.

“No one has stepped up; in the city we are hearing the same old, same old,” he said. “It just seems like a hope and a prayer and that’s all we’re getting.”

Mike Holm, a landlord and homeowner in Como, said it seems like the voice of the people in the neighborhood is rarely heard.

“The city has their own agenda, and they’re going to do what they want to do,” Holm said. “I feel powerless as a resident.”

Holm, who has lived in the neighborhood for six years, has seen his property taxes rise by about 14 percent each year, but has not seen any benefit from it, he said.

“The city doesn’t do anything to my neighborhood, yet my taxes are just going crazy,” he said.

“I have tried calling, I have tried talking to them, and nothing happens,” he said. “I have no respect for the City Council.”