July 21, 2024

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Checking in on RiverNorth development plan

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An Eden Prairie-based aerospace engineering company that worked on the International Space Station, the James Webb Space Telescope, and NASA’s most recent Mars Rover is expanding to north Minneapolis.

ION Corporation is the corporate partner for phase one of the four-phase RiverNorth District on Broadway project, an ambitious real estate and workforce development vision that could transform a largely industrial district just off Interstate 94.

ION is building a $30 million manufacturing facility as part of a planned company expansion and relocation. Located on a 1.1-acre parcel at 201 W. Broadway Ave. between Second Avenue North and Washington Avenue North, the new building will have 5,000 square feet of office space on the ground floor and a much larger amount of production space on two floors above. An aboveground parking structure will attach to the building’s rear.

Groundbreaking is expected in October 2024, according to a timeline provided by RiverNorth Development Partners, the Master Properties-affiliated group overseeing the project’s real estate activities. Occupancy is expected in early 2026.

ION’s expansion could create up to 110 new manufacturing and administrative jobs paying $25 to $75 per hour. The company plans to source the majority from north Minneapolis with help from the RiverNorth Foundation, the project’s workforce development arm. The effort could further diversify ION’s workforce, which is currently about 75% women and people of color.

“The RiverNorth Foundation … will be a key partner in assisting us in recruiting, training, and retaining all the new employees for the ION Manufacturing Center,” said ION president and CEO Wendell Maddox in a letter of intent published earlier this year.

Though notable in its own right, ION’s new facility is just the opening act in a grander transit-oriented development that could take a decade or longer to build out.

RiverNorth Development Partners envisions a densely built, mixed-use intersection that connects the Mississippi riverfront to its east with the bustling West Broadway commercial corridor on the far side of I-94. The planned Blue Line LRT extension is expected to cross I-94 on or near West Broadway, raising the possibility of a pedestrian-friendly transit plaza or land bridge over the freeway — a more compact version of the Reconnect Rondo vision in St. Paul. The group is in talks with Metro Transit to add a light-rail stop in the area to serve the expected “critical mass” of workers and residents, said Anthony Taylor, RiverNorth Development Partners’ managing partner and board chair.

RiverNorth Broadway’s second phase will replace several buildings on a similarly sized parcel across the street from ION’s new facility. Like phase one, the plan is a mix of office and industrial space. No tenant is attached and there’s no firm construction timetable, but RiverNorth Development Partners hopes to begin as phase one moves closer to occupancy, said Taylor.

Success in phases one and two could build momentum for the development’s later phases, said Taylor. Located on a superblock at the southeast corner of Broadway and Second Avenue, phase four is by far the largest and most ambitious, with a mix of residential, office, and hospitality uses taking advantage of the site’s sweeping river and downtown views. Currently, the nearest residential building is Schafer Richardson’s Peregrine apartments, at 2025 W. River Road.

A lack of existing residential uses in the project area means RiverNorth Broadway is a rare opportunity to transform a historically disinvested part of Minneapolis without displacing anyone, said Taylor. He compared the effort to nearby Upper Harbor Terminal, a mixed-use redevelopment on an old shipping terminal site north of Lowry Avenue that will feature a 19-acre park, an 8,000-seat performance venue, new industrial uses, and hundreds of affordable and market-rate housing units.

After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Master Properties had internal discussions about “what [development] can we do in north Minneapolis where our success is judged by the community impact,” he said. Drawing on local and national data showing enduring declines in living-wage “job proximity” in Black communities, “our intent became to use this intersection for broad social impact for current north Minneapolis residents,” he said.

As RiverNorth Development Partners moves closer to phase one groundbreaking, RiverNorth Foundation is scaling a workforce training and development operation to provide a reliable pool of skilled workers based nearby. Its education partners include EMERGE, Minneapolis College, Dunwoody College of Technology, Hennepin Technical College, and Summit Academy.

The idea is to pre-qualify employees for high-skill, living-wage jobs in a matter of months and give employers the confidence to waive multi-year experience requirements for new hires, said Don Gerberding, founding partner of RiverNorth Development Partners. Pre-employment training is compelling not only for future RiverNorth employers like ION and George Modular Innovation Solutions but also for existing north Minneapolis with significant, ongoing skilled labor needs, including Coloplast and GAF.

Program graduates can expect entry-level wages between $25 and $30 per hour at ION, according to RiverNorth project documents. That’s enough to make homeownership realistic for workers living in north Minneapolis, where owner-occupied housing is affordable by regional standards.

“These will not only be jobs, but careers,” said Warren McLean, president of the Northside Economic Opportunity Network, which supports entrepreneurs and small businesses in north Minneapolis. “This is a potentially huge, catalytic impact for this part of West Broadway.”