In March 2001, Theresa Carr opened her office door to find a Channel 5 Eyewitness News reporter glowering at her, cameraman in tow. "We've been filming your shopping center parking lot undercover for a month," the reporter snapped at her, she says. "You've got drug deals going on everywhere."
Carr was mortified. The mission of her non-profit organization, the American Indian Neighborhood Development Corp., was to revitalize the economy of Franklin Avenue, one of the most blighted areas of Minneapolis.
At times, it seemed like a mission impossible.
Across the street from the group's showcase development -- the shopping center at E. Franklin Avenue and 11th Street -- was a pornography store. Below her office window was what beat cops told her was the busiest pay phone in Minneapolis history, constantly in use by drug dealers.
Carr knew she faced a PR nightmare. She had tried to address the crime problem by staying in close touch with the Minneapolis Police Department's narcotics squad. They had made numerous arrests, but it was like trying to cure cancer with a Band-Aid, she says.
So Carr took steps of her own. She hired private investigators, who reported that her shopping center was the festering hub of the street crime that surrounded it. "They told me, 'Did you notice that people who go in that store never come out carrying packages? They're buying drugs,'" she says. When Carr went in one "store" to examine a broken pipe, she learned that its proprietor was a prostitute, with a bed in the back.
"For me, it was a light-bulb moment," says Carr. "I realized that, in some respects, real estate owners have much more power over crime than the police do."
Over the next year, Carr and her team brainstormed and then implemented a bold turnaround plan, working side by side with the police.
"People told me I was crazy -- no legitimate businesses would come in here," said Carr. Today, however, she shows the Channel 5 report, not with chagrin, but with pride at the transformation that Mike Christenson of the Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development department calls "an urban renaissance."
Carr's plan had three components. First, she radically changed the shopping center's mix of businesses. She didn't renew the leases of problem tenants, and pounded the pavement to attract businesses that the neighborhood needed. Roughly 70 percent of nearby residents don't own cars, she says. Yet the neighborhood had no grocery store or pharmacy.
Carr particularly sought out businesses with extended operating hours. "Busy streets are safe streets," she says. "We want businesses that don't go dark at 5 p.m., and have lots of foot traffic." Maria's Café -- which has since become a celebrated neighborhood gathering spot -- and the award-winning Franklin Street Bakery, a 24-hour industrial bakery, were home runs.
Second, Carr rethought the shopping center's physical design. She got rid of long dark corridors and overhangs, flooded the central plaza with light, and installed big windows, public art and a fountain. She began piping soothing Indian flute music throughout the plaza, since research shows that such music can reduce crime.
Finally, Carr added a unique component: a police safety center. The center provides a strong, visible police presence, but has a "living room" feel that attracts neighbors seeking a host of crime-prevention services.
As change progressed, Carr battled cries of "gentrification." But civic and economic rejuvenation blossomed, and other new businesses appeared. In 1999, there were 434 narcotics arrests in the six-block radius around the shopping center. By 2002-03, that number had fallen by half and in 2006, there were 62, Carr says.
Intangible benefits were equally important. "The guy in the wheelchair who used to have to take two buses to shop for his groceries, and can now go down the block," says Carr. "You can't measure that."
AINDC's development has transformed the surrounding area from a "struggling " to "a thriving neighborhood," says Assistant Police Chief Sharon Lubinski.
Christenson calls Carr "a hero."
"Theresa Carr is a pioneer. She's the preeminent practitioner of commercial turnarounds in the nation," Christenson said, adding that the city is using her vision as its model for a new economic initiative.
Now Carr and her team are off to north Minneapolis, where they are launching a five-acre, $60 million redevelopment on W. Broadway. To reflect their expanded mission, they are changing the group's name to Great Neighborhoods! Development Corp.
Carr won't approach potential Broadway tenants with a "do-gooder" message.
"We don't say, 'Come here because it's the right thing to do,'" she says. "We say, 'Come to north Minneapolis because it's a great business opportunity.'"
Northway Community Trust, a nonprofit devoted to creating wealth and reducing poverty in north Minneapolis, estimates that roughly 75 percent of disposable income on the North Side is currently spent outside the community.
I predict that's going to change.