Two years ago, the Minnesota Legislature appropriated $330,000 in bonding money for designing an expansion of Brian Coyle Community Center, the hub for the densely populated East African community of Cedar Riverside where high-rises house thousands of people and children.

Yet the money has not been spent.

While people say the need to expand is clear — the center’s gym is packed, its programs have waiting lists — the money to jump-start the process is tied up in a stalemate between the Minneapolis Park Board and Pillsbury United Communities.

“It’s a missed opportunity for a neighborhood that really needs resources,” says Louis Smith, attorney for the Cedar Riverside Partnership, a local consortium of organizations and institutions in the area.

The Park Board owns the Coyle Center and the land on which it sits and provides some programming there. But Pillsbury United Communities pays for most of the maintenance and operates the center under a 99-year lease signed in 1992. To get the bond money, that lease must be renegotiated to meet state requirements that call for a shorter time frame, among other things.

The leaders of both agencies accuse each other of failing to negotiate.

Minneapolis Park Superintendent Jayne Miller said Friday that the Park Board has offered proposals over three or four years, including a draft of a revised lease to Pillsbury, but never heard back.

“The need is incredibly great in this neighborhood,” she said. “I’m really disappointed that we cannot seem to come up with a solution or even have a dialogue to solve this.”

But Chanda Smith Baker, president and CEO of Pillsbury United, said Friday it is “absolutely not true” that her organization has not responded to the Park Board. She produced an e-mail exchange with Miller indicating that there was a meeting with both agencies, and Miller stated that the lease would have to be rewritten.

“They were then to come back with their recommended revisions,” Smith Baker said. “And they did not.”

Meanwhile, Coyle Center staff say the building is bursting at the seams.

“Sometimes it’s complete chaos,” said Amano Dube, the center director. “It’s a constant frustration, outside and inside. … It’s a battleground.”

‘Hub for everything’

Some 500 people come though the Coyle Center doors during the week, and big events on the weekend can draw another 500. Just two blocks from the center, 7,500 people live in high-rises and the West Bank neighborhood, Dube said.

“This is the hub for everything,” he said.

On a recent afternoon, 40 people, mostly East Africans, waited in a corridor to be served by a tiny food shelf that runs out of key commodities weekly because of limited storage space. A handful of agencies that help people with jobs and other services fit into two small rooms with wall-to-wall cubicles that can make the noise level overwhelming.

“You have to have really strong concentration and when there is a language barrier, it’s harder,” said Diane Wanner, who works in an employment program.

The gym is filled with youths playing basketball, and there are 300 to 400 on the waiting list for sports activities, said Mahdi Abdi, the Coyle Center’s youth program coordinator. Without the programs, he says, “those kids are susceptible to a bad environment.”

After school lets out, youngsters flood another room to eat snacks and get help with homework. Not all can get in.

“My daughter has been on the waiting list for the last two months,” said Shukri Yusuf. Her daughter, who is 10, has been struggling with writing and math. “I’m very worried.”

City Council Member Abdi Warsame, who represents the area, said he had to tell a woman last week that there was no room at the Coyle Center for the program she wanted to start serving the elderly.

“The population has grown, the needs have grown,” he said.

Some help is on the way.

The Cedar Riverside Opportunity Center will open this spring on the first floor of a new apartment building across the street from the Coyle Center and is expected to ease some demand. It bills itself as a “one stop shop” for educational and workforce resources.

And the Park Board says $2.8 million in improvements could be made at adjoining Currie Park by 2019, including a domed soccer field.

Lease requirements

A 2008 design for a Coyle Center expansion envisioned a second story and a price tag of $6 million. The cost could be higher now, officials said, and population increases might require a different design, reconfiguring the center.

But Pillsbury United’s 99-year lease is the biggest roadblock in the bonding process. To meet state standards, the lease can’t run more than half a facility’s useful life, said Jennifer Hassemer, assistant commissioner at Minnesota Management and Budget. Useful life is often 20 to 40 years, she said, so Pillsbury’s lease can’t exceed 10 to 20 years.

The lease must also meet other state requirements, including provisions that the state be first in line to get its money back in the event of a fire or a mortgage default, and that Pillsbury must buy the building at fair market value if the Park Board were to sell it, Hassemer said.

“The current lease appears to allow Pillsbury United the right to demolish the building and that conflicts with the state bond rules that the parks board has to have full control of the building,” she said.

Discussions ahead

Pillsbury United officials note they have invested plenty of money in the Coyle Center. The nonprofit raised around $6 million for the original building. It recently replaced its roof for $95,000 and put in a new cooling and heating system costing $120,000 so far.

The Park Board has also made recent improvements: $76,000 for a new gym floor, $180,000 for soccer field lighting, and $325,000 for synthetic turf.

John Erwin, park board vice president, and Pillsbury’s Smith Baker plan to meet next week. And state Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, who played a key role in getting the $330,000 bonding bill passed, said she is trying to set up a meeting with all sides and state officials to help resolve some of the issues.

Miller says she’s focused on getting the bond money for the design and believes additional funds may be available from the state for construction. Smith Baker said last week she did not believe the differences were insurmountable.

“This is not a $300,000 problem,” says Park Commissioner Scott Vreeland. “It’s a multimillion dollar investment. I believe that this was a legislative initiative to get the ball rolling and the ball hasn’t rolled very far.”


Twitter: @randyfurst