On July 11, MCCD members and partners gathered for the second CD Conversation in our 30 Year Anniversary series. Local economic development initiatives, and our communities, have changed significantly in the last 30 years. From Eat Street on Nicollet Avenue to the thriving local economies of our suburban communities, entrepreneurs and community developers have been at the heart of grassroots economic development. How has the focus of this worked changed in the last thirty years? What are some of the new tools and resources that are available? How can we continue to be responsive to community needs as demographic and economic trends evolve?
Cara Letofsky of Mill City Consulting, started the event with a presentation on the development of Eat Street. Cara discussed some of the historical context that led to the “creation” of Eat Street, including the construction of 1-35W in the 1960s, the Nicollet & Lake redevelopment which included the infamous building of K-Mart in the 1970s, and the community’s reactions, such as forming the Whitter Alliance neighborhood association in 1977. At the same time, Nicollet Avenue was becoming home to more restaurants and small businesses such as Rainbow Chinese (1987), Christos (1988) and Quang (1989). With the establishment of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP), Whittier became one of the first neighborhoods to participate and start thinking about what they would like to work on through NRP. The term “Eat Street” was a modification of a headline from local food writer, Jeremy Iggers, who declared Nicollet Avenue “Eats Street”. The businesses helped create one of the City’s first Special Services District and, with the support of area community development corporations, worked on branding and redevelopment to support Nicollet Avenue as the destination that it is today. You can see the slides from Cara’s presentation here.
After the presentation, Cara moderated a panel that included the following speakers:
- Ann Ahmed, Owner and Chef of Lat14 Asian Eatery and Lemongrass Thai Cuisine
- Chris Eng, Economic Development Director at Washington County Community Development Agency
- Robert Lilligren, President and CEO of Native American Community Development Institute
Ann shared the stories behind the opening of both her restaurants, and how different the two experiences were. As a child, she grew up around Eat Street and had initially dreamed of owning a restaurant on Nicollet Avenue in this area but an opportunity to open a restaurant in Brooklyn Park emerged unexpectedly. In the years since Lemongrass opened, a lot had changed for Ann personally but also in the community; more people were eager to try flavors they hadn’t been exposed to before and many were traveling again when they hadn’t during the economic recession. Development in suburban communities had changed as well, and going to a restaurant in the suburbs wasn’t the “trek” it had once been perceived to be. In between opening businesses, Ann had also been introduced to MCCD’s Open to Business program and had worked with Hennepin County business advisor, Rob Smolund, who she thanked for the role he had played in helping her open Lat14.
Chris discussed the change in Washington County and their participation in economic development, when traditionally economic development was seen as a city task. However, small businesses are a fundamental focus in the County, where 96% of all companies have 50 employees or less. Chris also mentioned that one of the challenges he was seeing more recently was in workforce development and stressed the need for those working in economic development to forge new partnerships in the education field and with workforce development organizations.
Robert discussed the asset based approach that NACDI has had and the importance of Franklin Avenue to the American Indian community in Minneapolis. He also highlighted some of the policy and economic decisions that had brought many people from the American Indian community to the City originally and the strong history of activism in the community. NACDI has had a history of actively listening to the community, which led to, among other initiatives, the development the American Indian Community Blueprint. The American Indian Cultural Corridor on Franklin Avenue was one of the ideas that emerged from the larger Blueprint. NACDI has also worked successfully to activate the corridor and one example recently was bringing in the Northern Spark festival.
In terms of the future of economic development, all three panelists discussed the need to invest in people in various forms. For Robert and NACDI, their work revolves around community and increasing the capacity of community to engage in economic development. Chris again emphasized the need for us to develop our talent pipeline to support small businesses and both Chris and Ann agreed on the importance of a well-functioning transit system.
We are excited to continue our 30th anniversary CD Conversation series on September 25, where we will discuss Building Bridges to the Future: Tools and Strategies for Community Development at Wilder Foundation. Look out for more information and the opportunity to register for the event soon!