The brass at Thor Construction is targeting north Minneapolis.
For commercial development, jobs and housing.
And that's a good thing. Because the North Side, with the highest proportionate concentration of minorities and lowest incomes, is the weak link in the Twin Cities economy. Despite pockets of new commercial development along W. Broadway and Lowry Avenue, and a sprinkling of new houses, the core neighborhoods are still plagued by crime, high unemployment, boarded-up housing and resident flight thanks to the 2006-09 mortgage crisis.
Yet that dour theme since the 1980s is contradicted on some blocks and commercial corners. And there is hope of better days ahead.
Thor, the largest black-owned business in Minnesota, is negotiating for land with Hennepin County and plans to move its headquarters next year from Fridley to a vacant lot at Plymouth and Penn avenues. Thor principals also are forming a new company, Sm+rt Homes. It will site and sell high-quality, urban-style manufactured housing at up to 25 percent less than the cost of site-built housing to help fill at least some of the 500-plus vacant lots created when government razed abandoned, tax-forfeited property.
Home valuations are rising throughout north Minneapolis amid the housing shortage.
"I've seen nice manufactured product and this sounds fantastic," Constance Vork, a North Side resident and real estate agent, said of Sm+rt Homes. "The North Side market has come back. There haven't been as many teardowns. Housing prices are rising. Last weekend, my group had three listings sell after multiple offers in the Homewood and Old Highland neighborhoods. All three sold for over their listed prices of $150,000. We just don't have enough houses to sell."
The principals of Sm+rt Homes, Thor CEO Ravi Norman and construction manager Gary Findell, say their houses will demonstrate that modular housing, designed with an urban look and modern-day amenities, and high energy efficiency and garages, can be delivered, including lots, for $180,000 to $240,000 — a significant discount to the $300,000-plus houses that have been developed at several North Side sites by other developers.
Jeff Washburne, a veteran businessman and North Side resident who runs City of Lakes Community Land Trust, which last year helped 40 North Side families gain homeownership, is hopeful of the initiative. He remembers at least one foray by a developer in the early 2000s with manufactured housing. However, they were cheap models, built on slabs with no basements or garages.
"There is still this area in north Minneapolis where there is a great opportunity … for current residents to live in permanent housing who often otherwise can't afford to stay in the city," Washburne said. "If they can pull this off, working with organizations like mine that get people ready through financial education, and raise some 'affordability gap' money … because even $180,000 is still too expensive for many families on the North Side.
"It will help to see the finished product and look at the numbers. If somebody has figured out this animal, then we are all for it."
The new homes initiative evolved from a series of meetings headed by Council Member Barb Johnson, who represents the area, and officials of the city development agency, who are frustrated with the pace of redevelopment. Nonprofit outfits like Habitat for Humanity, which has built dozens of new houses with new owners and sells them at a discount, have to raise money to subsidize each property.
Thor's Norman said he hopes to achieve an agreement with the city and Hennepin County soon to build a new, $30 million headquarters. Thor has 150 employees and revenue of more than $150 million. Thor Chairman Richard Copeland grew up in north Minneapolis and founded Thor 36 years ago.
Norman said the housing initiative, which will be operated separately from Thor, "is just another part of the vision that I have for economic development. Part of it is things we can do at Thor, including private investment in north Minneapolis. And [Sm+rt Homes] is trying to do something with needed housing in an urban area, with a quality product that is more affordable."
The homes will be built by Dynamic Homes, a Detroit Lakes modular homebuilder. Norman hopes one day to open such a factory on the North Side.
We've seen the 20-year commercial rebounds of E. Lake and E. Franklin avenues on the near South Side, areas once the city's top police hot spots. There are fewer gin joints and drug dens. And more small businesses, housing, shopping, art and restaurants.
Commerce trumps crime, former Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan, another North Side native, long has said.
Here's hoping the Thor headquarters and Sm+rt Homes initiatives are part of a safer, more prosperous North Side.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.