The line for a free hot meal, free groceries and free clothing began forming in an alley across from St. Paul's new Allianz Field well before noon Monday. Started by Bethlehem Lutheran Church more than a decade ago to help clothe and feed people living in poverty, Open Hands Midway serves hundreds each week.
While many who serve the area's neediest residents express hope that the shiny new stadium and subsequent development will spur improvement throughout the area, some worry that increased traffic, booming property values and a wave of hipster migration could squeeze out Midway's most vulnerable population.
"Everyone in the Midway wants to see things get better. But we don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater," said Troy Wilson, pastor of community outreach at Central Baptist Church, which, like Bethlehem Lutheran, is within sight of the new stadium. Wilson has for several years ministered to people coming out of prison and recovering from addiction.
"How can we balance the improvement we are going to see here with still being available and welcoming to the most vulnerable?" he asked.
Few expect an answer to that question for at least a couple of years, not until the neighborhood surrounding Allianz Field more fully transforms. But with two new developments with hundreds of market rate apartments rising soon across the alley, Central Baptist Senior Pastor Joel Lawrence said the neighboring churches are talking about what they can do to mitigate the possible loss of affordable housing and protect minority-owned small businesses from getting priced out of the area.
Possibilities include creating a community benefits fund, with potential contributions from Minnesota United and other local businesses, to Central Baptist buying nearby homes to preserve as affordable housing.
"On the whole, there is a sense of excitement about the new possibilities that are here," Lawrence said, "along with concerns about what it's going to mean for some folks."
The $250 million soccer stadium hosts its first United game April 13. Dubbed "the Spaceship" by neighbors, the 20,000-seat structure wrapped in a gray mesh already has created buzz. On Friday, thousands of fans and neighbors came to an open house featuring a fully operational beer hall and team store. A DJ spun tunes over the stadium's public address system.
Rachel and Andy Fields and their 4-year-old daughter Louisa aren't soccer fans, but they still came. They bought a house in the Hamline Midway neighborhood seven years ago, drawn by the area's affordability and its proximity to the Green Line light rail. The stadium is an improvement over what was a vacant bus barn and rundown strip mall, they said.
"Compared to what it was before, it's very exciting," Rachel Fields said.
But they worry that area small businesses will be replaced by national chains if rents rise too high.
"There still are a lot of vacant storefronts that need to be filled" on University Avenue, Andy Fields said.
That's because property owners along the avenue have jacked up rents in anticipation of the businesses to come, said Wes Burdine, who bought the former Town House Bar and turned it into the Black Hart, what he calls the city's first "queer soccer bar."
"And they'll let them sit empty until they get the rents they want," he said. "Every one of these landlords has stars in their eyes."
Burdine owns his property and said he intends to keep drink and food prices at a working class level. The idea is to "draw people in, rather than push them out."
That's what pastors Scott Simmons of Bethlehem Lutheran and Russell Rathbun of House of Mercy, a congregation that rents space at the church, hope to do as well. They see the area's impending gentrification as an opportunity, rather than a threat. The energy created by the stadium has the potential to attract a cadre of service-minded millennials seeking to make connections with their community, they said.
Rathbun said the churches need to be champions for those who might otherwise be overlooked in the neighborhood's transformation.
"This is coming. You can't stop development," he said. "We just want to stand up and be noticed and say: 'Wait a minute, let's not get run over here. How can we collaborate?' "
Simmons said he has been encouraged that area developers want to be good neighbors and he believes that the soccer fans who will move into the area will be the kinds of neighbors who have a "fire in the belly" to help those in need.
"What if the new residents have that fire for LGBT rights, or homelessness or whatever? We can reach out to them and give them a means to make a difference," he said.
Open Hands Midway Executive Director Kay Kuehn said she had hoped the soccer team would become a catalyst to help those in need — maybe through player appearances or helping Open Hands upgrade its equipment. But promising early talks with team officials have fallen by the wayside, she said.
"They need to have a better presence to engage with the community," Kuehn said. "But they're not doing that."
United spokesman Eric Durkee said team owner Bill McGuire has "from the outset" been involved in discussions with area business owners, church leaders and bar owners to learn their concerns and hopes moving forward. The team has held job fairs and vendor fairs in the neighborhood and is open to the community's ideas, Durkee said.
Durkee said McGuire has heard some of the neighbors' concerns. Team officials, he said, aren't quite sure yet what to do to address them.
"But at the very least, it's important to be cognizant of that," Durkee said. "We have ears, and we want to listen."
Several of the people lining up for the free meal of barbecued chicken and rice at Open Hands on Monday said they're excited about what's happening in the neighborhood.
Natalie Poupart, who lives in Frogtown with her boys Beto, 12, and Jose, 2, said: "I'm kind of proud that it's opening here in St. Paul."
She and others said even if the area becomes "fancy," they intend to keep coming to Open Hands.