North Minneapolis business owner Tara Watson was pleased to learn last week about Thor Cos. moving its headquarters from the suburbs to a new building at Penn and Plymouth Avenues N.
Thor Chairman Richard Copeland, a North Side native, will build a $36 million building that is part of $100 million in private-public construction planned for three corners of the half-vacant intersection. It also is a hugely symbolic economic development on the gritty-but-game North Side.
"People have heard the buzz now that some of these projects have happened," Watson said, ticking off several other neighborhood projects. "I'm pretty confident. And there are other developers interested."
Copeland, the 35-year construction boss behind Minnesota's largest minority-owned firm, started as a small subcontractor. He and Thor CEO Ravi Norman forecast a better future for the North Side, where the unemployment rate is the highest and average household income the lowest in the Twin Cities.
Norman and Copeland, backed by the likes of Target CEO Brian Cornell and Gov. Mark Dayton, aren't the only believers.
"It's going to create more activity along Penn Avenue," said Marcus Owens, a corporate veteran who runs the Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON) and a growing small-business incubator on W. Broadway. "Thor is a catalyst for more development."
Watson in recent years has acquired and renovated several buildings east of Penn along W. Broadway — the Main Street of the North Side. Watson, a nurse and chiropractor, employs 50 people in her medical office, an adjacent Anytime Fitness franchise and a home health agency.
Watson, also president of the West Broadway business association, embodies the slow, building-by-building commercial recovery in the Plymouth-W. Broadway area that may finally reverse a business downturn that started with suburban flight to the burgeoning suburbs in the 1950s and '60s.
Today, residential and commercial real estate prices are rising on the North Side.
Roger Cummings, co-founder of 21-year-old Juxtaposition Arts on W. Broadway, is overseeing a six-figure renovation of Juxta's fourth building. Juxta's 100-plus employees, students and contract artists produce work that adorns local businesses, homes and public spaces.
"There are still stumbling blocks, including owners sitting on properties, in hopes a developer comes along [to overpay]," said Cummings. "They need to be fixed up or sold so new owners can set up real commerce inside, not just T-shirt shops."
Juxta works with design-and-advertising agencies, such as Knock on nearby Glenwood Avenue that has grown to 60-plus people since being founded by Lilly Hall in 2010. They are working to get more locally produced art into buildings on W. Broadway and elsewhere.
"Art stimulates and enhances development," said Cummings. "We need to get in front of more businesses, whether they need coffee mugs or coasters or posters or other art."
The W. Broadway corridor, still pockmarked by vacant and derelict buildings, has sprouted restaurants, a farmers market, storefront overhauls, community gardens and art galleries. It has a number of commercial and residential developments planned or completed. They include:
• A $5 million-plus expansion of Unison Comfort Technologies' HVAC manufacturing operations along Interstate 94 north of W. Broadway, which has added more than 100 workers since 2014 to 325-plus, at $17 an hour plus benefits.
Unison and several other North Side businesses have embraced the Minneapolis Grow North initiative that provides financial incentives, including down payment assistance for workers who buy houses.
• The $8 million Sherman & Associates development of a former Buick dealership at 800 W. Broadway that was vacant for decades.
• The $9 million Capri Theater expansion on W. Broadway that will make the popular music theater a bigger destination.
• A planned $12 million medical office building that will include a sit-down restaurant, being developed by Wellington Management of St. Paul.
• Three housing developments totaling more than 200 units at a cost of nearly $45 million near Penn and Broadway targeted at the working class, including Broadway Flats, Penn Avenue Union and Commons at Penn, developed by former NBA player Devean George, a North Side native.
New and renovated buildings signal change and improvement.
But the North Side recovery remains incomplete until economic recovery delivers more opportunity and wealth for residents.
North Minneapolis, which is about 50 percent minority, also has unemployment and poverty rates triple that of the Twin Cities metro as a whole.
Outfits like NEON, Summit Academy, Twin Cities Rise, Emerge, Minneapolis Urban League, Dunwoody College, Minneapolis Technical and Community College and local government and private funders are working together to coordinate certification and training programs as well as soft and hard skills training to produce more workers from the ranks of the unemployed, high school dropouts, people in recovery and former convicts.
The employee-hungry Twin Cities economy, including some North Side employers, will need them over the next decade.
Hundreds of these folks annually are being trained for jobs in health care, technology and construction that start at $15-plus an hour plus benefits.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.