For now, the ground-level space in an apartment building in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is just a big, empty room with cement floors and bare walls.

But in the not-so-distant future, says City Council Member Abdi Warsame, it will be a hub for the young people of this primarily East African neighborhood, a place to hang out, sign up for classes and even interview for a job. Give it enough time, Warsame believes, and this space will do enough to cut the neighborhood’s unemployment rate — which stands at about 17 percent — in half.

Backers of the Cedar Riverside Opportunity Center already have secured $100,000 in funding from the city and another $290,000 from Hennepin County. Now, they are reaching out to anyone who will listen — from legislators to philanthropic foundations to church groups — to raise about $1 million more and open the center. They envision a facility that will be a one-stop shop for colleges, organizations and companies looking to recruit new students and workers.

“The main aim is to give hope to the community,” Warsame said. “It’s something that is aimed towards them, designed specifically for them, and that’s never happened.”

While Hennepin County would oversee the development of the center and provide staff members, it would be operated with the help of several organizations. EMERGE, a community development group that has an office at the nearby Brian Coyle Community Center, would move in. So would Hennepin County’s Cedar-Riverside library services. Groups or companies wanting to hold job interviews or training could reserve space.

Hub for jobs

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the county has been working to recruit new staff members for jobs in areas from finance to health care to building operations. He said other large employers, including hospitals and the University of Minnesota, often have similar staffing needs, but people in communities like Cedar-Riverside often aren’t aware of the opportunities or familiar with how they could apply.

“We’re trying to create these pipelines into jobs that are good jobs with good pay and good benefits,” he said.

Both McLaughlin and Warsame said it’s clear there are plenty of young people in Cedar-Riverside eager and willing to do all kinds of jobs.

Minneapolis Community and Technical College officials recently reached out to Warsame with the hope of finding 20 scholarship recipients for an HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) training program. Less than a week after Warsame put the word out, 140 people had applied.

Warsame said he believes it’s critical for young people in the neighborhood to land good jobs, one by one, to start a broader trend. Last year, one young man he mentored landed a position as a community service officer for Metro Transit Police. Now, he’s working with another neighborhood kid, Ali Saleh, who wants to do the same thing.

Saleh, 19, said that he’s taking criminal justice classes and hopes he’ll also get a chance to serve his community. He said the neighborhood needs a place where young people can get more information about jobs and have a safe space to spend time.

“It would be a place for kids to hang out, do homework, play video games — something that would get them off the streets,” he said.

Early support

The planned location for the center is in the newly opened Five15 On the Park Apartments, a development on 15th Avenue S. near the apartment towers of Riverside Plaza. The owners of the building have a tentative deal with the planners of the Opportunity Center and are supportive of the plans, Warsame said.

Supporters got a good reception from legislators earlier this month, said Louis Smith, legal counsel for the Cedar-Riverside Partnership, an economic development group with representatives from government, organizations and businesses.

He said he expects private donors will be supportive, particularly given the area’s stark employment numbers.

“We’re early in the process, but so far I am quite encouraged,” Smith said. “I think people see the combination of the distinct need with this group in Cedar-Riverside and the importance of connecting with these services.”