An eating disorder program is claiming that the CEO of Target Corp. is exerting pressure to block one of its clinics from opening across the street from the executive's home in Orono near Lake Minnetonka.
Dirk Miller, executive director of the Emily Program, said Gregg Steinhafel and his attorney exerted pressure on the city and Mayor Jim White to block the facility's application for a conditional-use permit at a former private school.
Miller said that after Steinhafel's attorney called Orono, White then called the Emily program and said "we have to pull the plug'' on the application.
The contentious battle, which predates Steinhafel's public involvement, is expected to resume Monday night at an Orono City Council meeting. Dozens of neighbors, opponents and supporters of the program are expected to pack the meeting. The council has twice tabled the issue.
Steinhafel did not respond directly to requests for comment, but Target issued a statement saying the dispute did not involve the company. In letters to city officials and in comments at public meetings, Steinhafel has expressed concerns about locating the medical facility in a residential neighborhood.
White said he did not ask Miller to drop the application for the permit. Miller, the mayor said recently, "heard what he wanted to hear. Any assertion that we were being pressured by someone else is a total fabrication. Mr. Steinhafel is a neighbor like anybody else. It doesn't mean any more or less because of his position in his company."
White, who weeks ago was seen as a strong supporter of the project, said he has become more neutral as the debate has unfolded.
Emily officials have called opponents prejudiced and irrational. Their program has about 2,500 clients statewide. Another clinic is set to open this week in St. Paul, where it has met little or no opposition.
Miller said last week that he is shocked at Steinhafel's role in the debate.
He said Steinhafel, a board member with TreeHouse, a group that helps at-risk kids, was among neighbors who attended an informational meeting a few weeks ago with the Emily Program. Miller said Steinhafel at the time told program officials "you people are doing God's work."
"I was surprised," Miller said of Steinhafel's role. "It sounds like, don't do God's work in my neighborhood. He is a member of TreeHouse, he is philanthropic. But TreeHouse is in other neighborhoods."
Steinhafel, in comments at a Feb. 22 City Council meeting, said, "We strongly believe that Emily's Program has no place at the Hill School location."
In a separate letter to city officials, Steinhafel and his wife, Denise, said the school site is too small and that a zoning change could have longer-range implications, including opening the door to other medical facilities at the site or in the area. They said they are not opposed to the Emily Program. They wrote that they have a close friend who suffers from an eating disorder and acknowledged "the help programs like this offer.''
Days after the meeting at which Steinhafel spoke, he had attorney Walter Rockenstein contact the city of Orono about the Emily Program. Rockenstein, a former Minneapolis City Council member who works on land use issues, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Target said the Steinhafels are paying for the legal help.
Miller said he talked to his attorney, whose opinion was that Steinhafel and his legal help "were threatening the city in some way ... that they were pressuring the city."
Miller said he is looking for a compromise, an interim use permit whereby the Emily Program would give up the permit if it outgrows the Hill School site. It would require enacting a new ordinance, but he believes it could be done quickly.
"We could have this done by May 10," Miller said. "But Mr. Steinhafel isn't interested in that. He's just interested in not having us in that location."
White said the matter might need still more study.
"If the neighborhood hadn't said something we probably would have voted to approve it," White said. "Now ... it's very much like when someone calls for an instant replay in a football game. If someone says 'Oops, you didn't look at this,' then we may have to hold off."
Heron Marquez Estrada • 612-673-4280