Making his mark on the North Side

Southwest developer Stuart Ackerberg has launched a nonprofit focused on revitalizing North Minneapolis

In Uptown real estate circles, few names are as well known as Ackerberg.

The Ackerberg Group developed its reputation during the past four decades developing and managing commercial and residential real estate throughout the area and beyond. The Southwest-based company has developed, owned or renovated more than 4,000 residential units and more than seven million square feet of retail, office and industrial property.

It’s hard to make a trip to Uptown without seeing an Ackerberg sign, stepping into an Ackerberg-owned or developed building, or parking in an Ackerberg-run lot.

But in recent years, the company’s CEO and owner, Stuart Ackerberg, has set his sights north of the Hennepin Avenue and Lake Street area. Far north. Since 2004, he’s developed seven blighted properties along West Broadway Avenue and he’s working on his eighth and ninth.

It’s work that’s been done under the “community development” arm of The Ackerberg Group, a division called Catalyst that broke off as its own nonprofit organization in January of this year. Catalyst’s mission for now is to revitalize West Broadway from Penn Avenue to Interstate 94. Ackerberg said the effort isn’t a money maker; it’s just something he felt called to do.  

Initially faced with a skeptical and untrusting North Minneapolis community, the developer has had to prove his intentions through the projects. So far, it’s working.

Rediscovering the North Side

Ackerberg is a lifelong Minneapolis resident, but his connection with the North Side was limited during much of his life.

His parents and grandparents grew up there, but he was raised in Southwest. Childhood memories of his grandparent’s house were the extent of his relationship with the northern section of the city, until he had a reason to return there in 2004.

He and his wife were delivering a puppy from a litter they were selling. It was a cold, clear winter day, Ackerberg recalled. The snow from a few days earlier was still bright white on the ground in his Lake of the Isles community. That changed as he drove north.

“As soon as we got into that community, it was just amazing to see the roads had been plowed maybe once, there was trash and litter everywhere,” he said. “I remember saying to my wife, ‘how is this even possible?’”

Ackerberg couldn’t shake the experience and for the next several months, he made a point of regularly driving through North Minneapolis.

“And the more I saw, the more disturbed I became,” he said.

So he decided that year to do something about it. After thinking about how to approach the problem, he decided that a concentrated effort to redevelop distressed, boarded-up properties and fill them with a variety of independent, locally grown businesses might eventually improve the area’s livability, build pride in the community and attract other developers to the area.

The question was where to start.

“Broadway seemed to have some rhythm of commercial activity, but most of the stores were vacant, in terrible disrepair or had a lot of questionable tendencies,” Ackerberg said.

Recognizing Broadway as the “spine” of North Minneapolis, Ackerberg made a 15-year commitment to transform the area.

“I just felt compelled to do whatever we could,” he said.

Earning trust

Ackerberg’s first project was a run-down childcare facility at 1915 W. Broadway. He bought the building from Hennepin County and had it completely renovated and back in service as an Agape Child Development Center within 75 days.

Next up was a retail project at 1101 W. Broadway, a once vacant, graffiti-covered and flooded property that was revamped and filled with a credit union, coffee shop and a housing, employment and community development organization called Emerge. To some in the community, it seemed too good to be true.

“After 1101, we started to get some rumblings of, ‘what’s the angle? Why are you here doing this work in North Minneapolis? How are you trying to take advantage or profit from our community?’ It was hard to hear because I knew our heart was very pure. And these deals don’t make money,” Ackerberg said.

Michael Wynne, executive director of Emerge, said at the time, Ackerberg’s history didn’t suggest that he was in the area to do anything more than develop properties for a profit, which was his business.

“I think at first it raised a few eyebrows for a big time developer like Stu Ackerberg to do this,” Wynne said. “But I think over time they’re really proving their intentions.”

In the 18 months since it’s completion, the 1101 building hasn’t once been tagged with graffiti, which Ackerberg takes as a sign of the development’s success.

But a later project would again make him work to earn the community’s trust. This time it was a church — the Garden of Gethsemane Church at 2054 James Avenue. Birds and raccoons inhabited the dilapidated structure, its walls were caving in and it was generally unusable. The Christian, dominantly Liberian, congregation worshiped elsewhere while trying to fix the church piece-by-piece with donations, but it was slow going.

Ackerberg said he thought returning the church to service could bring a couple hundred people to the area multiple times a week, which could do wonders for the community. But the congregation was wary.

“I more or less wanted to ignore him because we’ve had a lot of people come earlier who tried to tell us they were going to help,” said the church’s senior pastor, Rev. Randolph Cooper. “We even got burned one time when a guy took $5,000 from us and we never got our money back.”

After a couple phone calls and a meeting with Ackerberg, Cooper changed his mind. And because the church couldn’t secure a loan, Ackerberg personally guaranteed a nearly $1 million loan for the cause. The renovation began in September 2008 and was far enough along in December for the congregation to use the church for Christmas services. It was finished in January.  

“We just did it because it was the right thing to do,” Ackerberg said. “The goal was just to show people what’s possible.”

Raising expectations

Today, Ackerberg is working on his eighth North Side project, a development at 1200 W. Broadway that will incorporate office space, a community kitchen and event center.
The building should be done
by October.

A ninth project at 2119 W. Broadway will be re-branded “Five Points” because of the five roads that merge there. It will include a restaurant, coffee shop and radio station.

Public and private collaboration with entities including the Pohlad Family Foundation, General Mills, Best Buy, the city and the Metropolitan Council have strengthened Catalyst’s ability to get work done despite a dwindling economy. The community’s enthusiasm has also helped.

Ackerberg has had no trouble finding tenants for his Broadway projects.

Jackie Williams, owner of Abundant Catering in St. Paul, is going to move into the 1200 building to manage a community kitchen and events center. The development happens to be right across the street from her church, Shiloh Temple, but she never thought she’d work in the area because of its high crime.

She jumped on board after learning more about the kitchen’s incubator concept, which helps entrepreneurs to launch their own businesses.

“I just think that this whole project that we’re doing, helping the people, it’s not so much about myself and what I’m doing, it’s more about North Minneapolis, bringing hope, helping bring prosperity, growing West Broadway.”

Donald Bryant, president of Blaine, Minn.-based consumer products marketing company Alden Group, is also moving into the 1200 development.

“There’s a lot of momentum right now, a lot of excitement,” Bryant said. “Expectations have been elevated. I can sense that. There’s a number of people who want to have offices around Broadway now. The key is to make this sustainable.”

Mike Christenson, director of the Minneapolis Department of Community Planning and Economic Development, said development along Broadway is catching on. Roughly $250 million in projects are planned or underway on the avenue, he said. But Catalyst is the only nonprofit commercial developer doing work in the area.

He said the North Side has lacked private investment for the past decade, making efforts such as Ackerberg’s crucial to the area’s revitalization.

Ackerberg said Catalyst is just an intermediary, filling a commercial void until investors view North Minneapolis in a different light and the free market takes over.

“Somebody has to go first,” Ackerberg said. “Somebody has to say it really isn’t scary; you really can do good work here. It’s a community that’s absolutely worth putting time and energy into.” 

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]