Devean George wants to bring a sense of hope to the north Minneapolis intersection of Golden Valley Road and Penn Avenue.
The Minneapolis native, former Augsburg College star and NBA player is taking aim at the same stretch of neighborhood where he grew up dribbling a basketball and later witnessed a random drive-by killing of an 11-year-old boy that shook the city.
The change will come in the form of 45 affordable housing units, built on top of an outreach program for community youth that he calls George’s Building Blocks.
“It’s all about collaboration. That’s what this plan is. Everyone building blocks one at a time,” said George, who played alongside Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal after becoming the first Division III player selected in the NBA draft’s first round. “From Morgan Avenue to Queen Avenue. We’ll start on this corner, and from there, harmony.”
Building toward something greater always has been a part of George’s life. He graduated from Benilde-St. Margaret’s as a late bloomer and was recruited to attend Augsburg. He wasn’t done growing, though. He added four inches in height, starred for the Auggies and was a solid 6-7 by the time he graduated.
The Los Angeles Lakers took notice of his size and work ethic in selecting him in the first round of the 1999 NBA draft. He became only the seventh player in NBA history to win a league championship in each of his first three seasons. He later played with the Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors before retiring after 11 seasons of professional basketball.
Near the end of his playing career, George had a vision for his future. It included real estate and bettering people’s lives.
“I wanted to become a person that helped people. There are a lot of people that suffer that aren’t involved in the bad stuff going on,” said George, 35. “I figured out that playing basketball was not the end goal. I figured out that me playing basketball was probably just to set up for what I’m doing now.
“It is more of me being put in position to be able to help people and have a voice.”
Motivated to effect change
In 2006 he began investing in his plan. The beginnings of George Group North and nonprofit organization Building Blocks Minnesota were nothing more than five plots of unkept land occupied by three battered buildings on the corner of Penn Avenue and Golden Valley Road.
The mess didn’t bother George or his family. His father, Eddie George Sr., spent most of his life managing a club on the same land. When nearby businesses began to fail, the longtime north Minneapolis resident saw a chance to use it for good. He remembered a time when the facilities were used to help raise money for local kids in need. He approached his son about the possibility to produce something similar.
“A lot of kids around here need something to do. There should be more than just hearing gun shots,” Eddie George Sr. said. “There is still good around here. Devean came from the ghetto. Raised in the north side and stayed in the north side.”
By that time George had played seven years for the Lakers under legendary coach Phil Jackson, who had taught him what it meant to be a good teammate. He headed to Dallas, where he joined future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki. He considered himself still learning.
Off the court in Dallas, he got involved with The Empowerment Center, a community center in a challenged neighborhood of south Dallas. The Rev. Johnny Flowers, the center’s coordinator, called George a “friend to the friendless and father to the fatherless” when others had forgotten the neighborhood.
The experience reminded George of his home and all he had seen growing up.
Visiting the north Minneapolis neighborhood last week, George re-enacted memories of a pair of deadly shootings next to his home in the summer of 1996. Recalling the second one, George pointed to a window on the second floor of his dad’s house.
“I was in that room,” he said.
Home from college for the summer, George heard gunfire from a drive-by shooting that sprayed bullets at the front porch of the George household where 11-year-old neighbor Byron Phillips, his cousin, and George’s then 12-year-old brother, Chafe George, had gathered. Phillips was struck and killed. The shooting set off a summer of concern about gang violence in the city, and it took nearly three years to bring the killers to justice.
“When [George] came into my office the next day after the incident, he looked me in the eye and said ‘I’m going to make the NBA. I’m going to take care of my family,’ ” then-Augsburg coach Brian Ammann said recently. “That was the first year I saw that mentality that ‘I’m desperate and I’m going to do this and I’m going to figure it out.’ ”
Putting vision into action
Three years after his 2010 retirement, George’s initial investment still needs work. The vision, however, is complete.
“This is ours,” said George, stretching his arms in each direction of Golden Valley Road. He stepped over broken glass and trash as he toured the weed-filled north Minneapolis land. He mapped out a proposed design that will include a fitness center, activity room, retail space and offices built underneath the residential living.
These areas also will provide space for Building Blocks to share its message of finding a better path in life and what it takes to follow that route. It’s the backbone of George’s nonprofit organization, something he learned from his father and mother, Carol. Both worked two jobs so their three sons could attend private schools.
They also taught him to be wise with money and careful when choosing friends and associates. These life lessons put George in position to start his own real estate group when his pro basketball career ended. The George Group North owns a multifamily rental property in St. Paul and several homes throughout the Twin Cities. Its biggest project is an upscale 53-unit and retail redevelopment in Hopkins called Marketplace & Main.
“It’ll be great for the community to have something that’ll involve them and actually have them feel part of the project,” said Craig Slaughter, Building Blocks director of development. “Our philosophy is if we can spend more time with people in the community, it’ll start to bridge that gap.”
The Commons at Penn Avenue is an $11.5 million project. The city provided the first $1.125 million from an Affordable Housing Trust Fund and paved the way for $5 million in housing revenue bonds. Applications have been submitted to the Metropolitan Council and the State Housing Agency to complete financing. Construction is scheduled to begin next summer.
One corner, one block at a time
Fifth Ward city councilman Don Samuels recently presented George with a letter of support to be attached to the housing agency application. The letter touched on the waves of destruction the city’s north side has endured, most recently from the tornado in 2011. This new construction, however, sends a message that people believe in the renaissance of north Minneapolis, Samuels wrote.
Wes Butler, manager of city’s Community Planning and Economic Development multifamily division, said George’s vision to include Building Blocks on the ground level will create more community interaction than typical building projects.
While the project will take root on one of north Minneapolis’ highest crime intersections, George’s group hopes to one day occupy all four corners of the intersection and offer safe shopping options.
George will have plenty of support. His father has become a respected figure throughout the community. Local developer Archie Givens, who has helped build more than 1,100 affordable housing units throughout Minnesota, is part of George’s board of advisers. The Pohlad Foundation has shown interest in George’s vision and approached the group about potential partnering opportunities.
Former Gophers basketball player Ariel McDonald also has set up a presence in the north Minneapolis neighborhood. McDonald owns and rents several homes in the area and is encouraged to see others share a similar vision for the community.
“There is an old saying from the TV show ‘The Wire’: ‘He who controls the corners, controls the block,’ ” McDonald said. “Then you can control what’s going on inside the walls. You can have good. It’s there for the taking.”