Jamez Staples saw a big opportunity when the state decided to move its workforce center in north Minneapolis.
With the center relocating, it left the 22,000-square-foot building at Plymouth and Fremont avenues and an adjacent parking lot up for grabs. Staples, who owns Renewable Energy Partners, bought the property for about $1.5 million in 2017. He envisioned a training center for local students and adults to prepare for careers in construction, energy and sustainability technologies.
However, a year and a half later the project has stalled. Minneapolis Public Schools, a potential building tenant, is looking at an alternative training site, and city staff is holding up a $1.6 million grant awarded to the project citing concerns with meeting the current funding conditions.
“Everybody is running around here talking about disparities. Everyone is talking about the workforce shortage, but nobody is doing anything,” said Staples, a North Side native.
Staples said his proposed Minneapolis Regional Apprenticeship Training Center (RATC) addresses the economic disparities of training people of color who live in north Minneapolis as well as the need to grow a skilled workforce educated in clean energy to meet regional sustainability goals.
“We need more workers in this space,” Staples said. “We don’t have the workforce to do what we need to do here.”
Before the purchase, Staples had lined up the backing of several potential partners and leaders including now-Mayor Jacob Frey, Xcel Energy CEO Ben Fowke and Attorney General Keith Ellison. In late May, about 50 employers and nonprofits met with Staples and his team to talk about potential collaborations, he said.
The Minneapolis City Council in 2018 decided to move Minneapolis to 100% renewable electricity for city facilities and operations by 2022 and citywide by 2030, pointing to scientific research on the threat of climate change.
But, last month, a report published in partnership with the city’s Offices of Sustainability and Community Planning and Economic Development suggested the current electricity and energy efficiency workforce may not be big enough to meet the scale-up in energy efficiency that will be needed to meet the city’s goals. The report noted there were opportunities in minority neighborhoods to develop a more diverse clean-energy workforce.
The north Minneapolis neighborhoods of Camden and Near North, where the training center would be located, have a high concentration of black residents, with 25% to close to 40% of overall residents in those neighborhoods living below the poverty line, according to Minnesota Compass data.
Yet Staples, who has been working for four years on the RATC proposal, said the city of Minneapolis has dragged its feet with helping him secure the funds awarded by a $1.6 million Livable Communities grant from the Metropolitan Council late last year that he needs to get started on the redevelopment. The project has also received other grants.
For the Livable Communities grants, the city must iron out a contract with the developer before the money is released.
According to the grant application, the training center would start in the existing workforce center that was to be renovated and leased to the Minneapolis School District, the state and other potential partners. The center would expand into a 100,000-square-foot facility to be built on the parking lot.
The training would be available to students as well as adults to develop skills including those pertaining to solar installation, electrical microgrids, stormwater management, electric vehicle charging station infrastructure, and other sustainable careers, Staples said.
Construction for the first phase of the project was supposed to start in June. Staples, who is black, said he believes the holdup is partly because he is not viewed as a traditional developer.
City staff’s concern is that Staples hasn’t secured tenants yet and the city would be “on the hook” if he were unable to renovate the center and construct the new building, said Erik Hansen, director of economic policy and development for CPED.
“Jamez is an emerging developer and we want to support him,” Hansen said. “He doesn’t necessarily have the conventional resources that a more established developer like Ryan [Cos.] or United Properties would have. We want to see [developers like Jamez] in Minneapolis, especially in this area. We wanted him to get stabilized and get some cash flow going and then continue to work on getting that 100,000-square-foot building built, but if he’s got no tenant, it makes it challenging from a financing standpoint.”
Minneapolis Public Schools leaders declined to sign on as a partner until it had completed a study of its future needs, said Julie Schultz Brown, executive director of marketing for Minneapolis Public Schools.
Last month, the school district released details of its comprehensive district design looking ahead to the next four years, which included plans for a new centralized career technical education (CTE) center at North High School. Public feedback is still being gathered about the CTE plan.
The RATC could be a good addition to the school district’s CTE plan for example adding electric vehicles to its automotive curriculum, said Michael Krause, a business consultant in clean tech at Kandiyo Consulting who is working with Staples.
Staples said the project could go ahead without the Minneapolis School District. Staples has secured letters of interest in the last few months from several potential training partners such as the Minnesota Trades Academy, CenterPoint Energy, Xcel Energy and others.
Sometimes projects whose scope has changed significantly are brought back to the Met Council and resubmitted and rescored, said Met Council spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge.
It’s something that Staples and his partners are trying to avoid. The city has three years to draw the funds but it could request a two-year extension, Kollodge said.
Staples is modeling the center after a similar project called the Rochester Career and Technical Education Center, which offers classes in agriculture, construction, engineering and more with daytime programming by Rochester Public Schools and Rochester Community Technical College maintaining the center.
Staples’ Regional Apprenticeship Training Center could be a game-changer because of its urban location near possible workers when many other training opportunities are in the suburbs, said Jamil Ford, another north sider who is working as the designer of the proposed RATC complex.
“Take race, class, gender out of the picture,” Ford said. “Take north Minneapolis out of the picture. Because of the shortage … you want to get to people. You want to have great transit and access points.”