For years, the small staff of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force has offered culturally based medical, social, wellness and economic services in an outdated south Minneapolis community center where patients sometimes have to stand outside because the waiting room is too small.

Several of its youth and theater programs need to be housed in a nearby church. Even with logistical constraints, the group started a company that makes baby food with Native American-cultivated heirloom crops and foods grown and harvested using sustainable practices. Plants are grown by people learning agricultural skills on a few acres just south of the Twin Cities.

The task force's tiny, hodgepodge workplace will soon be replaced with the Mikwanedun Audisookon Center for Art and Wellness. The effort consolidates and expands its existing services and adds a theater, a commercial kitchen with a cafe for people to sell their food and spaces to jump-start other new businesses.

To help build its new facility, the task force received nearly $1 million from a $10 million grant funding effort that Hennepin County recently approved for 18 mostly minority-focused organizations and nonprofits. The goal is to promote affordable commercial space and provide a place for entrepreneurs to develop restaurants, event and training centers, offices and other assets for communities who often face barriers to economic growth.

In all, the county-backed projects will create more than 400,000 square feet of commercial and nonprofit space, support more than 550 local business owners and employ more than 1,000 people. The total cost of the projects is more than $270 million, including city and state funding beyond the county grants.

"The county has been focused on ways to assist businesses recover during the pandemic and this is just an extension of that goal," said County Board chair Marion Greene. "This is a very targeted way to spend pandemic relief money, which has a high impact in communities."

The one-time program, called the Community Investment Initiative, sought applicants focusing on economic recovery strategies for minority entrepreneurs, developers of affordable commercial space and nonprofits. Proposals were sought in March and drew 46 applications.

Many of the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal pandemic funding received by Hennepin County has been used for COVID-19 issues and short-term business and housing financial relief. Commissioners wanted this initiative to have long-term transformation in cities and specific communities and to reduce disparities, said Patricia Fitzgerald, director of community and economic development.

When county staff did research and talked to stakeholders, they were told that the greatest need was more affordable commercial space and support of nonprofits that have been on the front lines during the pandemic but are now struggling financially and have space issues, she said.

"The is pretty new territory nationally to define what is an affordable commercial space," said Ryan Kelley, Community Investment Initiative program manager.

Other projects underway

During the application process, the county learned that cities such as Bloomington, St. Louis Park, Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park were already considering projects for minority businesses, commercial space and nonprofits.

Brooklyn Park bought a vacant commercial space with the goal of rehabilitating the site into a business incubator. The $8.5 million project will create 27,000 square feet of commercial space for up to 60 non-food retail and commercial businesses. There will be access to business resources and technical assistance plus areas to hold meetings, host events and attend trainings, city officials said.

Other projects include the development of 40,000 square feet of commercial and community space with an art library at Juxtaposition Arts in Minneapolis and the renovation of the historic Coliseum Building into a Lake Street retail hub for 25 small business and entrepreneurs of color, Kelley said. A gas station is also being converted into a space for four businesses.

Space to grow

The Indigenous Peoples Task Force, which received $750,000 from the county, moved into its spot on E. 23rd Street in 2008. The services it offers are divided among HIV and hepatitis-C case reduction and testing, opioid use prevention, youth activities and employment opportunities focused on a theater program. They also manage a 14-unit housing facility for people living with HIV and other issues. The three-story place where the task force meets has a basement, main floor and loft, which staff say doesn't leave much room for privacy.

The task force planned for a new space just a few years after it moved into its existing spot, said Mike Neumann, coordinator for the new facility. The city sold a vacant lot nearby to the task force for $1, he said. They will break ground on the $10 million project in the Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis next spring and expect it to be completed in a year.

Besides a theater, the new facility will feature a commercial kitchen that will serve traditional food, foster the growth of the Indigi-Baby Food brand, provide space for new business owners and add a large clinic and counseling area, he said.

The new spaces will give entrepreneurs a chance to build wealth they can pass on to the next generation, Kelley said.

"And even if businesses come and go, the spaces will always be there," he said.