Minnesota’s Opportunity Zones Conference Puts People and Communities First

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Last week, the Minnesota Opportunity Collaborative hosted more than 140 community and business leaders, developers, entrepreneurs, and investors for Minnesota’s first-ever state-wide Opportunity Zones conference. Held in Brooklyn Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, the Be Inspired Summit was illustrative of the non-profit’s three-pronged approach to creating a state-wide Opportunity Zones ecosystem: education, collaboration, and community-focused investment.

“The summit saw some broad consensus that community-led development can happen within Opportunity Zones,” said Lynne Osterman of the Minnesota Opportunity Collaborative. “While no one said it is going to be easy to advance projects which are truly responsive to community need, everyone in attendance agreed that for the people within Minnesota’s 128 zones, we need to try.”

An OZ Best Practice: How a Local Pilot Became a Statewide Initiative

Efforts to educate local stakeholders in Minnesota began in early 2018 during the census tract selection process, immediately following the enactment of Opportunity Zones. Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) affiliates in Duluth and the Twin Cities played a central role in hosting meetings that were part education, engagement, and technical assistance. Those efforts ultimately led to a partnership with the City of Duluth to create an investment portal for local businesses and real estate projects.

Seeing both the success in Duluth as well as the need for similar outreach throughout the state, this pilot was scaled and expanded to become a statewide initiative. In addition to replicating the in-depth trainings, the idea of an investment portal was adopted at the state level. The Minnesota Opportunity Collaborative built and manages a project directory and contracted with The Opportunity Exchange where the state benefits from exposure to a national audience.

Leading with Education 

Since launching this spring, the Minnesota Opportunity Collaborative has hosted trainings in 23 of the state’s 78 rural zones, participated in several larger events in the Twin Cities and Duluth, and presented to statewide audiences. The organization has used these forums to create a shared space for networking and collaboration amongst unlikely partners—both of which are critical in attracting Opportunity Zone investments that garner positive outcomes. Through education, the imagination of business owners and developers throughout the state has been sparked. The next step was to provide a forum to connect emerging investment opportunities to capital; enter the Minnesota Opportunity Zones Challenge.

Crowdsourcing Community-Focused Investments

The Minnesota Opportunity Zones Challenge kicked-off in March as a way to crowdsource a pipeline of investments through the state. Many of the entries received through the challenge can be found on a public deal directory, and the challenge finalists were awarded varying benefits to further their work, including grant money to support pre-development costs, a free listing on a MNvest-authorized portal that allows them to raise up to $1 million, and/or customized technical assistance.

All told, sixteen investments were submitted for consideration representing more than $300 million in total financing. The five listed below were selected as finalists and invited to pitch during the summit.

  • The North Shore Adventure Park (Silver Bay – 1,770 residents): Repurposing of a vacant lot into a food hall, providing space for local business owners and furthering the city’s goal of leveraging its nascent tourism industry to drive economic growth.
  • Minnesota Avenue Housing Project (Aitkin – 2,020 residents): Actualizing the recommendations of a recent housing study, the construction of 30 homes with rents affordable to local workers (workforce housing) will support the activation of the community’s downtown area and promote a livable, walkable lifestyle for families.
  • Clock Tower Redevelopment Project (Granite Falls – 2,700 residents): Redevelopment of a blighted corner lot along Main Street into new rental homes and storefronts, activating the property and increasing patronage of downtown businesses.
  • Normandale Mobile Home Park (Redwood Falls – 5,000 residents): Revitalization of an underutilized mobile home park using environmentally sustainable, affordably-priced homes sourced from a local manufacturer. The city’s current housing shortage will likely be exacerbated due to increased interest from new employees hired to work at a $60 million health center currently under construction within a mile of the park.
  • Brooklyn’s Building (Brooklyn Center – 30,000 residents): Local developer inspired by immigrant business owners’ desire to “own, not rent,” partners with community leaders to create an entrepreneurial hub with tenant equity options.

Congratulations to the Minnesota Opportunity Collaborative and Be Inspired Summit sponsors—LISC, Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Great River Energy, Sunrise Banks, and WIPFLi CPAs and Consultants—on a successful gathering that demonstrated the positive impacts that are possible through investments in Minnesota’s Opportunity Zones. (September 18, 2019 press release)

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