Bao Vang envisions a one-stop shop for immigrants and refugees across Minnesota.
People could get training to become a diesel mechanic, truck driver or tailor. There would be child care and homework help, and a wellness center with yoga and tai chi. Farmers would sell food at a co-op. Staff would video conference with people in greater Minnesota to address their needs.
Vang, who directs the Hmong American Partnership, acknowledged the Minnesota Multicultural Center is “an aspiration and a dream” at this point. But it’s one that she and other nonprofit leaders are banding together to make a reality at an 11-acre property on St. Paul’s East Side that used to be part of 3M headquarters.
“We continue to talk about disparities. We continue to talk about the shrinkage of the labor force. We continue to talk about all the issues and challenges, but we have not been able to move the needle,” Vang said.
It’s time for Minnesota to try a new approach, she said. The nonprofit leaders are working with legislators to seek state money for planning and are pulling together financial information to present to the St. Paul Port Authority, which owns the site.
At the Authority’s last board meeting, nonprofit officials estimated they would create 165 jobs at the property and build an agricultural program, workforce center, business incubator, grocery store, transportation hub and wellness center.
“It’s very exciting. I think the board is certainly willing to expedite the proposal,” Port Authority Chairman Harry Melander told the group. But first he and others said they need more financial information on construction and management of the center.
A key property
The Port Authority wants to ensure the nonprofits are financially stable and won’t abandon the plan three years later, said Ruby Azurdia-Lee, president of Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio, which is a partner in the multicultural center effort along with Merrick Community Services.
“For us, that’s not even a question,” Azurdia-Lee said, noting that the three organizations leading the charge have been around for decades. “But that’s something that they’re questioning.”
The Port Authority put a lot of money into cleaning up the 3M site, which is “prime property” that several companies are interested in, said City Council Member Dan Bostrom, who represents the area and is on the Port Authority board. The Authority wants to ensure the group that develops the site is “bank worthy” and has the financial wherewithal to create jobs and build a facility of that size, he said.
“There’s a lot of need in that neighborhood for services,” Bostrom said. “But we got to be able to pull it off.”
Immigrant and refugee services are currently scattered, and transportation to the various locations is the top barrier preventing people from getting help, Vang said. Having one large site that houses multiple nonprofits would be more efficient for clients and service providers, she said.
There are few large, open properties in the Twin Cities, Vang said, and if they can’t use the Beacon Bluff site they would be back at square one.
Neighborhood in need
Multicultural center renderings show five buildings on the now-empty site. The nonprofits would seek state bonding money and local and national funding, including grants, to build those, Vang said. The total cost of the center has not been determined.
Azurdia-Lee, who is on the Governor’s Workforce Development Board, said she hopes the state will support the project.
“I’m tired of waiting to see what others can do,” she said, and nonprofits need to work together “in a collegial and collaborative way, because it takes all of us. It’s time to shift the systems that are not working.”
The East Side neighborhood where the Multicultural Center would be located has “high poverty and such high despair,” Azurdia-Lee said. In the ZIP code where the center would be located, 28 percent of residents are below the poverty level, according to census data, compared to 11.5 percent statewide.
The nonprofits would partner with private industry and colleges to develop programming and training at the site, Vang said. She envisions some of the center’s programs as precursors to prepare people for community and technical college.
The job training, child care and wellness aspects of the plan are critical, said Deanna Abbott-Foster, executive director of the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council that represents the area. Current social services in the neighborhood help people get by, but the new resources would allow them to move out of poverty, she said.