Lights out at Green Institute

The board has closed the pioneering nonprofit a year after firing its executive director.

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Ron Foster of the Green Institute’s Re-Use Center helped Becky Holcomb early last year as she looked for wainscoating for her home with daughter Wendy Smith and Wendy’s son Max. Remaining inventory of the Minneapolis nonprofit will be liquidated this month.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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The Green Institute of south Minneapolis, a precursor of the local "green economy" movement, is closing down more than a year after its executive director was dismissed by the board over financial issues.

Jamie Heipel, 44, a onetime Ameriprise Financial manager, was promoted to the top job in 2006 after three years running the Green Institute's once-successful construction-demolition and used building-supplies business.

Several employees have been laid off, an energy-conservation program was transferred to another nonprofit, and a used building materials supply business near Hiawatha Av. and E. Lake St. has closed. The remaining inventory will be liquidated this month.

The institute board president, Lisa McDonald, who took over in 2010, and Tim Keane, a longtime volunteer lawyer for the organization, would only confirm that Heipel was dismissed in 2010 and that a consulting firm's examination revealed deep financial problems that the wounded organization was unable to overcome.

McDonald said Friday she hoped that "Green Institute" name and cornerstone construction-demolition and ReUse Center business could eventually be merged into another nonprofit involved in neighborhood renovation in north Minneapolis.

Reached Friday, Heipel said he left because of differences with McDonald and denied financial improprieties.

"It got to a point where Lisa was asking ridiculous questions and making ridiculous insinuations," Heipel said. "Our financials were the best."

Heipel, an Osseo resident who was paid about $98,000 in 2009, filed for personal bankruptcy earlier this year. He said he was forced to do so because the Green Institute denied his unemployment claim and board members refused to provide him with job references.

The Green Institute has yet to file a 2010 tax return.

The nonprofit's 2009 financial statement, now subject to question, showed a surplus of $768,504 on revenue of $1.6 million. Some of that revenue came from the gain on the $5.2 million sale of its flagship Phillips Eco-Enterprise Center building on Hiawatha Avenue. Most of the proceeds were used to retire debt.

The Green Institute also has moved out of its small office in the Eco-Enterprise Center, which it sold to Wellington Management. The center remains open and is otherwise full of tenants.

The institute, in the Phillips neighborhood in south Minneapolis, served an early and visible role as an environmental symbol by translating green thinking from concept to construction. It was born in the late 1980s of Phillips community resistance to Hennepin County's plans to expand a garbage-transfer station in the middle of a working-poor neighborhood that was sick of other people's trash.

In 1998, the Green Institute Eco-Enterprise Center, which featured passive solar energy and a green roof, collaborated with local government on expanded recycling programs and uses for recycled materials, and pioneered several used-building material and energy-conservation programs.

Heipel was hired in 2003 to run a couple of businesses and was promoted to succeed former director Michael Krause in 2006 as the agency struggled with its building mortgage. Heipel closed one ReUse Center, settled about a half-million bucks in old debts with vendors for 50 cents on the dollar, and sold the building to Wellington. That enabled the institute to pay off $4.8 million in mortgages held by Western Bank and the city of Minneapolis.

"There is still a lot of energy and a great nucleus of supporters for the Green Institute and the mission," Keane said. "The board is as strong and energetic as any nonprofit board I've experienced. Their dedication will ensure that the Green Institute, in some form, will continue to serve the community."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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