The spectacle of elected officials and financiers donning hard hats and poking at frozen dirt with gleaming shovels seems as old as politics itself, or at least as old as the photo op. And a groundbreaking may look like a tired ritual to an outsider. But when it's happening in your neighborhood it might stir some genuine feeling. Especially if your neighborhood is Saint Paul's North End, an area that became notorious around the Twin Cities in the 1990s for a brutal double murder that occurred in one of its commercial mainstays, a florist called the Flower Hut.
It was not long after that killing that Rev. Mike Anderson came to the local Catholic parish, Saint Bernard's.
"This community has been into a downward trend probably for the last, at least 15 years. And many people have come to the point of kind of thinking that the neighborhood was a dangerous neighhood, that it was a neighborhood that wasn't worth investing in," Rev. Anderson says. "I've been here for 12 years, so I've been watching that decline (and) worry, would we have enough energy, would we have enough of a spark to turn something around. So, I'm terribly grateful for this because this is a turnaround moment."
Rev. Anderson was among dozens of North Enders who gathered on Rice Street, the neighborhood's main thrououghfare, at the insection of Winnipeg Avenue. Seven properties, including the Flower Hut lot, had become vacant. With $12.5 million in financing from the more than a dozen public and private funders, the site will be turned into 56 units of rental housing along with 6,000 square feet of commercial space.
“I'm terribly grateful for this because this is a turnaround moment.”Rev. Mike Anderson
Archie Givens is the CEO of Legacy Management, the development company that will manage the project. Givens knows how soft the real estate market is these days but says the project known as The Winnipeg is a good investment, none-the-less.
"There's such a huge demand for affordable housing. Affordable rental housing is our specialty, but I think affordable housing is so long past due, there's a pent-up demand for it," Givens says. "So, we think that investment is a wise investment for our community, a wise investment for our future and will help a number of people, 56 in this case, find a nice, clean place to live."
The project's supporters huddled around a heater in a tent on the vacant lot as Mayor Chris Coleman and other dignitaries traipsed to a podium to praise The Winnipeg. Howard Goldman is the Department of Housing and Urban Development's area director for Minnesota.
"Fifty units are set aside for families at 50 and 60 percent of the area median income, paying no more than 30 percent of their income in rent," Goldman says. "There are 6 units set aside for very low income families at 15 percent of area median income."
On the outskirts of the crowd, John Vomastek smiled and expressed his support for the North End. Vomastek is the Saint Paul Police Department's central district commander. He says the neighborhood sometimes reminds him of his hometown on Minnesota's Iron Range, Aurora -- a blue-collar town with people working to turn their economic fortunes around.
"There's a lot of hope up there and still that solid core group of people. My parents are still living there and their neighbors are still there," Vomastek says. "I think here, too, a guy just came out of the house next door and he's been here for 30 years. He's been talking about the changes up and down and wherever it may be. But when you look at something like this, it's an opportunity to look at some movement forward, some hope, some good things."
Construction of the The Winnipeg is expected to take about a year. By then, supporters hope more signs of improvement will be evident on Saint Paul's North End.