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Minnesota Opportunity Collaborative Hosts Summit, Draws National Attention

The Minnesota Opportunity Collaborative’s first-ever ‘Be Inspired Summit’ in the land of 10,000 opportunities took place on September 18 and highlighted equity investment with a positive community impact throughout opportunity zones in the state of Minnesota. The event brought in local and national expertise to explain the tool and its uses and showcased the five winners of the Minnesota Opportunity Zone Challenge. Northspan President & CEO Elissa Hansen and Lynne Osterman of Community Exchange emceed the event, which drew over 140 attendees.

To increase the likelihood of projects within opportunity zones addressing real needs within communities, a panel of leaders moderated by Justin Erickson of Community Venture Network shared suggestions with each other and Summit attendees to invite as many perspectives as possible to the table. Joe Galvan, a Regional Administrator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Ryan Johnson, a Senior Impact Analyst with the national office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), provided national perspective on efforts to put the incentive to work. Rachel Reilly of the Economic Innovation Group (EIG), which helped create the opportunity zone incentive, gave the keynote address.

The Opportunity Zone Challenge aimed to spur activity across the state in opportunity zones. The challenge received 16 project entries totaling over $300 million in total investment and provided cash prizes to five winners. The winners of the Minnesota Opportunity Zone Challenge were:

Greater Minnesota, Under 5,000 Residents: The Adventure Park on the North Shore, Silver Bay

In 2017, Alice Tibbetts and Phil Huston launched the Adventure Park when they removed an old gas station and started a rock climbing wall (affectionately named Eleanor), returning a formerly contaminated site into a pristine recreational attraction. A high ropes course with ziplining debuted in May 2018, and Tibbetts and Huston now seek equity investment to make their additional expansion plans a reality. The development has the potential to remake Silver Bay, a quiet lakefront community better known for its industrial economy, into a town with a diverse economic base that capitalizes on the North Shore’s natural beauty and tourism-driven economy.

Runner Up: Granite Falls Clock Tower Development, Granite Falls

The Granite Falls EDA owns three parcels in Granite Falls’ quaint, historic downtown adjacent to the banks of the Minnesota River that are currently home to three dilapidated structures that have been primarily vacant since 2001. The EDA envisions a new mixed-use complex that would welcome retail and commercial uses, joining businesses with high foot traffic counts in the downtown area, and the upper two floors will host approximately 28 market-rate units that fill a major need in the local housing market. Kirk Bustrom of the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission and Cathy Anderson of the Granite Falls EDA pitched the project, which they framed a “significant facelift” for a designated Main Street America community.

Runner Up: Minnesota Avenue Housing Development, Aitkin

Following a comprehensive housing needs study, the city of Aitkin recognized a need for a variety of new housing products, including market rate rental housing for the community’s workforce. Aitkin County Growth, an economic development nonprofit, owns the property and has already worked with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and DEED to demolish a building previously on the site. Director Barb Carr proposes a $5 million development of approximately 30 units of two- and three-bedroom apartments, which will provide housing for workers in Aitkin’s diverse economy and bring additional residents to its historic downtown.

Greater Minnesota, 5,000-20,000 Residents: Normandale Mobile Home Park, Redwood Falls

Developer Brian Ertel aims to replace an old-model manufactured housing park with current-model homes. These locally manufactured homes offer efficient land use that meets population density goals, considerably reduces environmental impacts, including energy use, water use, construction waste, and stormwater runoff. Redwood Falls has a housing occupancy rate of 97%, underscoring a serious workforce housing shortage, and these new homes would help to meet that need using a much more attractive, sturdier product than the trailer home models of the past. Major local employers such as Daktronics have emphasized the value of a new housing product such as Ertel’s proposed development.

Twin Cities Suburbs: Brooklyns Building Project, Brooklyn Center

Developer Mike Brady plans a co-op-style working space with a planned exit schedule that will give businesses joint ownership of the property and building. The project looks to capitalize on Brooklyn Center’s burgeoning entrepreneurial community that stems from its large foreign-born population and pairs Brady’s real estate expertise with the community’s need for a small business accelerator. The Brooklyns Building aims to host resources such as the Small Business Administration and faculty from nearby North Hennepin Community College and the Hennepin Technical College and aligns with the city’s key strategic priorities.

The Summit was sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), LISC, Sunrise Banks, Minnesota Housing, Wipfli, Great River Energy, Community Exchange, and Northspan. Minnesota Opportunity Zone Challenge Sponsors include DEED, LISC Twin Cities, LISC Duluth, the Knight Foundation, Sunrise Banks, the Minnesota Real Estate Journal, The Opportunity Exchange, and the Minnesota Opportunity Collaborative. Northspan thanks all these organizations for their vital support for our efforts.

On the same day as the Be Inspired Summit, Northspan Research Director Karl Schuettler was in Montpelier, Vermont for Vermont’s Opportunity Zones Workshop. He participated in a panel discussion with other national experts from the Governance Project and Georgetown University Business for Impact and provided feedback to Vermont communities on prospectuses they had designed to promote their opportunity zones. Northspan will continue to work with its partners to ensure the Minnesota Opportunity Collaborative is a national leader in driving social impact investment into opportunity zones.