In the early 2000s, the Metropolitan Council expressed their intent to add a second light rail transit line that spanned from downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis. This announcement spurred confusion among those living near the proposed light rail route--particularly, on the St. Paul front. Residents were fearful that they would become displaced, and business owners were afraid of what construction would do to their business. Thus, 14 local and national foundations came together to create the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative to ensure that the construction of the Green Line would benefit those along the line. A crucial aspect of community development is the ability to remember how past events have played out, in order to improve the way we approach current and future initiatives. To better understand how the process unfolded, I was able to gain valuable insight from Jonathan Sage-Martinson, who led the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative as the Director (2008-2014), and Nancy Homans, former Policy Director at the City of St. Paul (2005-2017).
Both Jonathan Sage-Martinson and Nancy Homans expressed their main concern, and the local residents and organizations’ concerns with the construction of the LRT which focused on the potential negative impacts construction could have on local businesses. Nancy Homans, who was the Policy Director to the former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, was heavily involved in making the Ready for Rails Forgivable Loan Program possible. Within the Mayor’s office, her role was to work on projects that spanned across all departments at the City of St. Paul and the Green Line construction affected everything in the city.
When the construction of the Green Line was announced, it received some community backlash, as construction would disrupt local businesses and residents along the LRT route. The main cause for concern was rooted in a painful memory for the Rondo neighborhood. In the 1960s, the construction of I-94 resulted in the displacement of residents in Rondo. Such a project produced negative externalities for Rondo residents that are still felt today. “The I-94 construction and displacement of Rondo residents became a starting point for the conversation locally, and everyone was committed to not see it repeated,” recalled Sage-Martinson. To not allow history to repeat itself, Homans knew action needed to be taken on the City’s side, and that meant giving resources to organizations with people who were highly connected and were trusted by the local business owners and residents along the proposed Green Line route.
Creating the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative
Overtime, this led to the creation of the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative (2007 -2016). The first task was to brainstorm ways in which this group could support businesses during the transitory period of construction. Local business owners and organizations expressed their concerns and the Funders Collaborative listened. The main concerns during this construction centered on the lack of parking, a decrease in business activity, not being visible to potential consumers, and the eventual rent increase which could lead to displacement. Eventually, the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative realized that most business owners could benefit from, and would like to receive, financial resources to mitigate the burden of the LRT construction. To do so, Homans and the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative decided to utilize preventative measures through the Ready for Loans Forgivable Loan Program. To ensure that business owners would direct the funds towards their business, loans were given out as a way to hold businesses accountable with as little paperwork as possible. When asked about the feasibility and acceptance of this program, Sage-Martinson claimed, “this program was not a hard sell because there was lots of interest and concern about displacement, and this was seen as an anti-displacement program for businesses and business owners.”
Business owners were given loans of up to $20,000 without interest. If a business went out of business even with the help of the loan, the loan was forgiven. Additionally, for those that were successful through the construction phase, the loans were forgiven after five years. The application process was made simple so as to not prolong the process. To prepare business owners for the application process and help them determine the aid their business required, businesses were provided with technical assistance. Business owners benefited from this as some learned new ways to organize their finances, and business advisors helped set them up for a successful application for the Ready for Rail Forgivable Loan Program. There was also a marketing program in place that made signs for businesses so as to remain visible to potential customers.
Changing the Narrative
Nancy Homans recalled that one of the biggest challenges they faced during this construction period was the media. Despite the efforts being undertaken to protect small businesses from the negative impacts of construction, much of the narrative around the Green Line was negative. Some business owners were interviewed by the media and expressed their dissatisfaction with construction. According to Homans, she felt that the negative media representation was actually working against the businesses in the Central Corridor because people began to perceive the area as run-down and dysfunctional. Fortunately, Springboard for the Arts stepped in to combat the negative sentiments and helped re-instill vibrancy back into Central Corridor through their program called Irrigate. Springboard for the Arts is an economic and community development organization that strives to make stronger communities with artists. Through Irrigate, Springboard for the Arts paired local artists with business owners to create art that helped retain and attract customers. Local artists were mobilized to impact their own communities and neighborhoods’ livability, vibrancy, local economy, community narrative, and transit oriented development, just to name a few. Artists created art, murals, and put on performances such as dances and theatre productions, at these businesses to engage more people and create a buzz around the Central Corridor businesses.
“As soon as the artists moved in, the media had something different to write about,” remembered Homans. Artists’ presence were felt as their performances and artwork helped weave positive stories as they reminded the cities of the vibrancy that exists within the Central Corridor. The spark of interest helped in attracting more customers and put business owners at ease during construction. Additionally, this gave arts a more visible role in the community development process.
Aside from infusing the Central Corridor with local art, signs were made about “on the line” businesses with pictures of owners and diagrams that demonstrated how one could access their business on the Green Line. Business owners found these signs meaningful as it allowed the owners to visualize the end of the construction and understand the benefits that come with being along the LRT.
Finally, on the opening day of the Green Line, thousands of people gathered to ride on the new LRT line. Riders admired the Green Line stations designed by local artists as they waited, and spirits were high, despite the rain. In a way, the rain reflected the construction phase of the Green Line in the Central Corridor. Business owners and community leaders were adamant and vocal about prospering despite the construction and the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative was there to listen to the communities’ concerns. Though not all businesses survived most did with the help of the Ready for Rails Forgivable Loan Program. The program acted as a safety net for businesses with loans totaling over $3.6 million that went to 200 businesses. About two-thirds of the businesses assisted were owned by people of color. This again was another learning experience for community developers. Community developers came into this situation with knowledge they’d gathered from past experiences, such as the I-94 construction and disruption to Rondo, and worked with local residents and businesses to create a more positive outcome.
In this case, an important aspect of the Ready for Rails Forgivable Loan Program, was not just about funding the small businesses, but it was also essential for the Central Corridor Funders Collaboration to support businesses through multiple avenues. As a powerful resource, the Ready for Rails Forgivable Loan Program was selected as a 2013 Community Developers Hall of Fame project award winner. Today, the area surrounding the Green Line continues to experience increased growth and development as a result to the light rail construction. University Avenue has seen a net gain of businesses, including large developments such as Allianz Field.
-Written by Gabriela Olvera, Krussell Fellow
Gabriela Olvera is a Chicagoan with a love for cities and the city-life. She is currently a Krusell Fellow and first-year in the Masters in Urban and Regional Planning program at Humphrey School for Public Affairs.