Colleen O’Connor Toberman and her husband, Sam Toberman, who live in Northeast Minneapolis, used to brainstorm the possibilities for empty storefronts in their neighborhood, particularly along Central Avenue. They had plenty of ideas, but not the means to pursue them — at least not on their own.
That state of affairs didn’t deter the Tobermans. They found a group of like-minded thinkers in the Northeast Investment Cooperative (NEIC), a for-profit group founded in 2012 that enables people to collectively buy, renovate, and manage commercial and residential property. A social worker and community activist, Colleen O’Connor Toberman is now one of the pioneering co-op’s board members.
Despite a diverse mix of restaurants and retail businesses on Central Avenue, the area has struggled with rundown storefronts and absentee landlords. NEIC hopes to change the thoroughfare, one building at a time, starting with 2504-06 — which is actually two attached buildings — at the corner of Central and Lowry avenues.
NEIC targeted the two-story building, which previously housed a furniture store, because of the site’s “tremendous potential to add to the current good energy” along the avenue, Toberman says. She also said the building’s capacity to attract new ventures would “lift the businesses around it.”
NEIC sought out proven businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs, particularly those with a dedication to sustainability, for the warehouse-like space. The resulting combination of tenants could be happily named the 3Bs, as their businesses are bikes, bread, and beer.
The Recovery Bike Shop is a project partner that purchased 2504 from NEIC. “When we bought the two properties, we immediately (in a simultaneous closing) re-divided them and sold 2504 to Recovery,” says Chris Busber, another NEIC board member. Also in the building are Aki’s BreadHaus, a German-style bakery, and Fair State Brewing Cooperative, Minnesota’s first cooperative brewery.
The building’s basement could house a fitness center or music studio. Altogether, the place “encourages more of a walkable, bikeable kind of city,” Toberman says, “which we’d rather have than thousands of cars going by everyday, nonstop,” along Central Avenue.
A one-of-a-kind co-op
Co-ops aren’t a new concept. But NEIC has a fresh approach to community development. The 172-member co-op may be the only one of its kind in North America, according to Busber.
“The closest examples we’ve found, so far, are a cooperative in rural Canada that residents of a small town formed to save a struggling business that was that area’s economic backbone,” he says. The group also located “a co-op in Milwaukee that buys and manages residential properties.”
For $1,000 a share, members can vote on organizational matters and run for the Board of Directors. They also split the profits from their ventures. Right now, NEIC is looking to raise another $45,000 on top of the $230,000 it has gathered so far to ensure the success of its first project. Through the NEIC model, neighbors and other community stakeholders can help shape their neighborhood in a big way.
3Bs add buzz
NEIC gutted the building in September, preserving some intriguing brickwork. A yellow metal façade, which had been an eyesore, was removed. NEIC also installed a rain garden behind the building.
Recovery Bike Shop, which moved from its old home across the street in the Eastside Food Cooperative, was the first new tenant at 25th and Central.
“We were bursting at the seams at the old place,” says Brent Fuqua, who co-owns the bike shop with Seth Statmiller. “It was hard for us to service all of the business we had. From the moment I walked in [the NEIC building], I knew it was perfect for a bike shop.”
After buying the building from NEIC, Recovery renovated the space right away. For the bike shop, the setup was a win-win. The sales floor is twice as big as that of the old space, plus there’s plenty of storage. Fuqua hopes to create a bicycle museum upstairs.
Sales have boomed since the move, says Fuqua, who found recovery from addiction by fixing up old bikes — hence the bike shop’s name. He credits NEIC for creating “a model that says, ‘This is our community and it’s up to us to fix it,’” Fuqua adds, an attitude that mirrors his own about recovery.
Aki’s BreadHaus hopes to open by the end of January, says bakery owner Joachim (“Aki”) Berndt. A German immigrant, Berndt pursued his baking hobby after losing his construction job in 2009 and started selling his baked goods at local farmers markets. After deciding to strike out on his own, he scouted locations.
After one spot fell through, a friend who lives in Northeast told him about the NEIC project. From there, things fell into place. Berndt says he’s been challenged to find the right customer base for his baked goods. But given the response at farmers markets, he adds, “I think Northeast might be my people.”
The Fair State Brewing Cooperative has a similar story. Evan Sallee, CEO, says he spent a year looking for the right spot. Fair State wants to emulate the Black Star Co-op in Austin, Texas, in that Fair State members enjoy access to exclusive happy hour events, including special beer releases. They have voting rights around brewery decisions. They can also participate in beer making.
The sense of community in the NEIC building, and its location in the fast-growing micro-brew hub that Northeast’s becoming, was ideal. Sallee and his co-founders — COO Matthew Hauck and Head Brewer Niko Tonks — felt the NEIC’s goals aligned with theirs.
“The fact that so many people came together to support NEIC proves it’s the kind of place we want to be,” Sallee says. Likewise, brewing and baking go hand-in-hand, he adds. Fair State is even developing some German-style beers. And because Sallee and his co-founders are cyclists, having a bike shop next-door is handy. Fair State hopes to start selling beer in May 2014.
Northeast’s Main Street
Altogether, the NEIC project represents more than $750,000 of new investment on Central Avenue. And that’s just the beginning. NEIC wants to transform Central Avenue into the Main Street of Northeast, with “easy access to the daily amenities people need, as well as the entertainment and recreation they want,” Toberman says.
Central is ripe for such revitalization, and other developments are underway, particularly between 18th and 26th streets. The Eastside Food Cooperative at 25th and Central is expanding its retail space. Kim’s Vietnamese & Chinese Restaurant at 18th and Central recently reopened after a yearlong hiatus. Walgreens at 26th and Central is contemplating building a new home nearby, according to Toberman.
The Broadway located at Broadway and Central, a former warehouse re-developed by First and First, is booming with tenants including 612 Brewing and Spyhouse. First and First is also renovating the “Alamo” building at 15th and Central — so called because it resembles the famous Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.
The Alamo is “definitely a strategic location,” says Megan Gorman, managing director at First and First. And the ongoing activity on Central, including NEIC’s cooperative project, is encouraging to the development company. “Until recently, people identified Northeast as the small hub off of East Hennepin close to the river, but that’s changing rapidly,” she says.
“Business owners are heading north via Central Avenue,” Gorman continues. “Central has a beautiful mix of authentic international owner-operated restaurants and retail storefronts. The result is a very colorful urban environment. We’re very excited about the momentum we see in Northeast.”
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Anna Pratt is The Line‘s Development News Editor, and Innovation and Jobs News Editor.