Fifteen years ago, Mary Jo Copeland embarked on a high-profile campaign to build a 200-bed orphanage.
She immediately struggled to raise the $30 million needed for the plan, which was criticized as antiquated and a return to institutionalization. But the well-known founder of the nonprofit Sharing and Caring Hands kept the faith, relentlessly promising that someday the facility would be needed, and she would build it on the wooded 33-acre site she secured in Eagan.
She has finally given up on that promise.
Copeland, 72, is selling the property to a developer who plans to turn it into an industrial site.
“I couldn’t continue to try to convince the world that’s what’s needed,” she said.
She met a wall of opposition from people who argued children needed to be with a family, not in a group home. Copeland pushed back, saying her children’s home would provide a peaceful, stable setting and allow groups of siblings to stay together.
“No matter how well-meaning the people behind an orphanage are, institutionalization inherently does terrible harm to children,” said Richard Wexler, former director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.
He was one of many people who urged Copeland at the onset not to move forward with her plan.
“I hope by now she has some understanding of the fact that this would have been a terrible mistake and it would have been a terrible thing to do to children,” Wexler said.
The idea also drew supporters, including former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Pat Anderson, a former state auditor and once mayor of Eagan.
Letting go of a vision
Copeland said she spent years feeling tired — she was constantly talking to the media, defending her vision.
The plan drew national attention. The New York Times Magazine profiled her daily life and quest to create a children’s home.
She initially wanted one large building for the children. She said she started to question the project’s viability when people pressured her to instead build small cottages.
But she pushed forward, planning to put about 10 children in each house with a married couple and a staff member. A chapel, library and other amenities were also planned for the site.
“I always thank God I had the grace and the strength to fight for what was right. And I still know I was right,” Copeland said. “I think if it had worked out it would have been a wonderful, successful thing.”
The project’s chances improved briefly in 2004, when Copeland received a $5 million boost from the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation.
“Hopefully it will help people realize that this project isn’t dead,” Copeland said of the gift at a news conference at the time.
Half the money was a challenge grant. The Schulze family would match donations dollar for dollar. But deep-pocketed donors didn’t answer the call, and Copeland fell far short of the $30 million needed.
In 2008, Copeland let a development agreement with the city of Eagan expire.
A year and a half ago, she made up her mind. It didn’t make sense to pay for upkeep of the acreage and four small homes located there. She wanted to focus on the housing and services that her nonprofit runs in the North Loop of Minneapolis.
It was time to sell.
“When this guy came to offer me the money, ah! I was so happy,” she said. “I could get rid of it. And I could put the memory behind me.”
New projects underway
Developer Peter Deanovic plans to convert the plot, filled with tree-covered slopes and wetlands, into offices, warehouses or a distribution facility.
Last week, the Eagan City Council approved limited industrial use on the site bordered by Hwy. 55 and Lone Oak Road.
“We always thought of it as a commercial site,” said Council Member Meg Tilley, who was the lone vote against Copeland’s plan in 2002. “That’s what it should be.”
While the project had some “excellent merit,” Tilley said that as a former educator she was concerned and needed to learn more about Copeland’s plan. She also wanted to represent the half of the city’s residents who opposed it.
After 13 years of having the large piece of land in limbo, Tilley said she is optimistic about Deanovic’s plan. Deanovic did not return calls for comment.
Copeland said Deanovic is giving her $1.5 million for the property — half what she paid for it. She could have held out for more, but said she wanted to get rid of the property and needed the money for a new project.
She is using the cash to add teen and children’s centers and eight new apartments to the 92 family housing units already at Mary’s Place, a transitional shelter run by Sharing and Caring Hands in Minneapolis.
Construction of the addition is well underway. Kids hung out in the shade outside Mary’s Place on Wednesday. Across the parking lot, workers laid sidewalks. The expansion rose above them all, lined by windows plastered with the manufacturer’s stickers.
“I was just hoping that kids could be saved in a lot of ways,” Copeland said, reflecting on the Eagan dream. “But it just didn’t come out that way. That was my hope. I guess it’s being transferred over here now.”