James J. Hill library seeks 21st century role

Inside the J.J. Hill Reference Library.
The interior of the J.J. Hill Reference Library in St. Paul, Minn. on Monday, July 18, 2016.
Evan Frost | MPR News

James J. Hill was perhaps the richest Minnesotan ever. The railroad baron and financier known as the Empire Builder may have been worth more than $6 billion in today's dollars when he died about a century ago.

He founded a grand namesake library in St. Paul to help other entrepreneurs succeed. Now, the library's leaders are adjusting its mission and purpose for the internet age.

Back in the day, people routinely came to the Hill library for business information they couldn't find themselves. (For example, you can find a 1930 request for a count of animals slaughtered in Austin, Minn., the two previous years.)

But with the internet and smartphones essentially putting a library in everyone's pocket, the Hill library has been trying to stay true to its founder's charge of helping people launch and grow businesses.

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Monda Davidson presents at an entrepreneurs event.
Monda Davidson, who calls himself "The Black Tech Guy," presents at the JJ Hill Center on July 13, 2016. T
Martin Moylan | MPR News

Part of that evolution is hosting weekly events for entrepreneurs at the library, or James J. Hill Center as it's now called. Entrepreneurs pitch their ideas and get advice — and a grilling — about their plans.

Libraries aren't typical venues for entrepreneur elevator pitches, but this is dead-center in the vision of new Hill Center Director Tamara Prato.

"I want to continue to create that ecosystem for entrepreneurs and small business owners as a resource of information, as the place where they can meet with other like-minded individuals," she said. "And provide programming to help propel new businesses, small businesses and that entrepreneurial spirit that Mr. Hill had."

The Hill Center is also doing something even less likely for a library — investing in businesses. The center helped found and is a large initial investor in a new fund, Hill Capital Corp.

Hill Capital is focused on small business development in the region. The same types of business development and job creation for the area in a way that Hill did 150 years ago," said Barry Gisser, vice chair of the Hill Center board.

The center has sunk $75,000 into the fund, a mere half percent of the library's assets, and only a tiny slice of the $10 million or more that Hill Capital Corp. hopes to raise from local sources.

Outside of George Latimer Central Library.
The exterior of George Latimer Central Library and the J.J. Hill Reference library in St. Paul, Minn. on Monday, July 18, 2016.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Hill Capital President Patrick Donohue said the fund isn't likely to invest in businesses only at the idea stage. Instead, the fund is aiming for established businesses with millions in revenue that are having trouble getting funding to expand.

"The idea is that we make a number of investments into businesses throughout the region and we play the odds, where some won't do well," he said. "Hopefully, most will do as we expect. And then some will hopefully do exceptionally well."

While the center's leaders push its services outside the walls lined with decades of paper editions of Forbes, Fortune and The Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, the stately building remains a draw for some.

The library offers access to expensive databases — free of charge. They're a big help to Robert Mayo, whose assessment firm calculates the dollar value of a business.

"Definitely, a valuable set of resources there, as as well as if you're ever stumped or don't know how to analyze something or find something, they've got great librarians willing to help you," he said.