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Erik Pearson 11

Make it Here! Many hands at work in Creative Enterprise Zone

Posted on 06 July 2015 by Calvin

Article and photos by MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN

Erik Pearson 02The Creative Enterprise Zone (CEZ) is one of six newly established cultural and business districts along the Green Line Corridor. It extends from Prospect Park on the west to Prior Ave. on the east, and from Energy Park Dr. on the north to I-94 on the south.

Photo right: The Carleton Artist Lofts between Hampden and Carleton streets in the Creative Enterprise Zone. These subsidized, affordable apartments for people connected to the arts offer many amenities including studio and rehearsal space, a close-knit community and easy access to the Green Line.

At most recent count, according to writer Catherine Reid Day, board chair of the Creative Enterprise Zone, there are more than 500 creative enterprises within its boundaries. Reid Day said, “We are actively working on retaining and attracting light manufacturing and new creative enterprises to the CEZ. Our motto is: make it here!”

Reid Day explained that visioning for the CEZ began more than two decades ago, coming out of conversations between working artists and makers. “This is a cultural and business district that was already well-established,” she said. “The intention now is to maintain what’s already here with artist and maker studios, residences and live-work spaces.”

In 2009, one of the neighborhood anchors, the C&E Building on the corner of Pelham and University, was purchased by developers. It had long been home to floors of artist studios, and the loss of it was a real blow to the local community. People quickly realized that if they didn’t organize, other buildings with the affordable, ample space artists and makers need would soon be slated for re-development.

“We’ve always known that the formal establishment of the CEZ would take the work of many people,” Reid Day said. “All along we’ve partnered successfully with government officials and planners and have enjoyed an especially good relationship with the St. Paul City Council.”

Resident artists, makers and light manufacturers in the neighborhood started the momentum for the CEZ, and with the help of government and finance partners it has become a solid reality.

Erik Pearson 11Erik Pearson of Shipwrecked Studio is a longtime resident of the CEZ. He makes art at his studio in the Dow Building at 2442 University Ave. and then walks home to the Carleton Artist Lofts (CAL) across the street where he lives with his wife, Deanna. They moved to the CAL building in 2006, just a month after it opened.

Photo left: The Superior, WI native named his creative enterprise Shipwrecked Studio. He said, “The big lake just stays with you,” and professes to have a love for all things nautical. In addition to being a talented painter, sculptor, woodworker and sailor, Pearson is a dedicated musician and gigs regularly with his band The Old Smugglers.

Pearson, a painter/muralist, sculptor, and musician, said CA provides subsidized, affordable housing for artists. “I’ve never lived in a place where I’ve known so many people,” he added. “Everyone here is connected to the arts in one way or another: as a working artist, a passionate hobbyist, an arts administrator or what have you. There are about 175 apartments in our three buildings, and we’ve built a strong sense of community.

Watch for arts and culture events happening here throughout the year, including our art crawl in the spring and fall when we turn our apartments into galleries and art-making spaces.”

Erik Pearson 03Photo right: Pearson with one of his paintings.

Pearson realized from the beginning that he would need a studio space separate from where he lived. Since his early days in the art department at the University of WI in Superior, his hometown, Pearson’s paintings have just gotten bigger and bigger. His largest installation to date has been an exterior mural commissioned by the Bloomington Theatre and Art Center that measured 38 ‘ high and 65’ wide. Pearson uses a 4” brush and loads of scaffolding to produce his stylized characters inspired by German expressionist Max Beckmann, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and contemporary poster art.

Nicole Fierce of Fierce Design Studio is a glass blower and a brand new resident of the CEZ. Her 3,200 square foot gallery and in-process workspace are located in the Midwest Commercial Building at 2500 University Ave. Fierce searched for the new space for months. A bright green door on Cromwell Ave. opens directly into her gallery and it was this street presence, along with easy access from the Green Line, which sealed the deal.

Fierce Glass 106Photo left: Every glass object is shaped and smoothed with a wad of newspapers. According to Fierce, “The NY Times is best, having the lowest percentage of clay components in the newsprint. The Star Tribune holds up okay, the Pioneer Press falls apart, and the community papers are just too small.“

Fierce has been repurposing her space since she moved in last January. She has gutted rooms, removing dropped ceilings, installed track lighting, skim coated and painted concrete floors and, last but not least, hired three graffiti artists to make the walls shine. Her eye-catching logo, painted on the side of the Midwest Commercial Building says it all: FIERCE GLASS. Beauty born in fire. Never fragile – always classy.

Fierce Glass 111Photo right: Fierce always blows glass with a partner. “It’s like a dance,” she said, “when two people are really in sync with each other. With my best apprentices, we don’t speak in full sentences, just nods, and grunts. We’re working with glass that’s been

heated to 2,200 degrees. We need to be very observant and responsive toward each other.” When her two furnaces are up and running this fall, Fierce plans to roll the garage doors open on Franklin Ave. so people can see what’s going on. She understands as well as anyone how mesmerizing molten glass can be, and she appreciates the “chemistry of interest” when people walk by.

Asked how she became a glass blower, Fierce answered, “I took one class four years ago and was completely hooked. I blew for a year, continued to learn from community glass artists, and then jumped in with everything I had.”

That seems to be the sentiment of many artists and makers working in the CEZ. The beauty of the formalization of the district is that it will foster even more cooperation and shared opportunities for artists, makers, and light manufacturers.

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1538 Englewood 2

Group plans strategy against housing demolition

Posted on 06 July 2015 by Calvin

The group, Historic Hamline Village, hopes to engage the new president at Hamline University


1549 Minnehaha 2Neighbors concerned about Hamline University’s demolition of homes vow to stay involved. Several also want to continue to see what they can do to save 1549 Minnehaha Ave., although there are still questions as to accomplish that. There is frustration with the slow pace of community-university talks and how to save homes from wrecking crews. There are also concerns that the city isn’t doing enough to help the neighborhood.

Photo right: Neighbors still would like to save the historic home at 1549 Minneaha Ave., but are unsure of whether or not it can be accomplished.

More than two dozen neighbors attended an update meeting June 25 at Hamline Church United Methodist. The activists’ group Historic Hamline Village organized the meeting. Neighbors heard information on 1549 Minnehaha as well as efforts to have a historic properties survey completed for the neighborhood.

They also reviewed two upcoming city efforts. One, which will be heard by the St. Paul City Council at 5:30pm Wed., July 15, will set residential design standards for new infill housing in Ward 3. If that standard is expanded citywide, it could affect Hamline Midway and other neighborhoods.

The second effort is a St. Paul Department of Planning and Economic Development (PED) study of campus boundaries and the issue of Hamline University and other schools buying land outside of their city-approved boundaries.

While discussions June 25 were wide-ranging, there was agreement that more public meetings are needed. There was also discussing of getting neighbors involved with anti-residential teardown efforts citywide and efforts such as putting neighborhoods in conservation districts.

There is also eagerness to engage with a new Hamline University president as Fayneese Miller took office July 1.

Demolition of five properties including the former “White House” university president’s residence prompted an uproar last year. Ward Four Council Member Russ Stark’s office stepped in. After a large community meeting in September 2014, neighbors hoped for a process to discuss the issues of demolition and campus expansion. The university also agreed to a one-year moratorium on tear-downs, which expires Oct. 1.

1538 Englewood 2Photo left: The home at 1538 Englewood is also on the long-range plan for the University to demolish.

But a five-month delay before a university-requested facilitator could step in was one frustration, said Historic Hamline Village member Tom Goldstein. He and others said that while they understand that the University is transitioning to a new administration, neighbors are unhappy with the slow pace of talks.

“We feel there is a disconnect,” Historic Hamline Village member Roy Neal said. Neighbors would like to see Hamline University do what other St. Paul schools have done, such as have a formal neighborhood liaison staff position or even provide funds to improve housing near campus.

Neal said there are two parallel threads of discussion. One is that of neighborhood preservation. The other is community engagement. “We should be working hand in hand with the university to promote the neighborhood,” he said.

Another concern is that while neighbors were told that an 1880s-era home at 1549 Minnehaha Ave. would be sold for $1 or turned over to nonprofit for rehabilitation, they learned that was not a formal offer, but a suggestion. The home is classified by the city as a Category II vacant property and needs a long list of property code violations corrected before it can be sold.

University officials didn’t attend the meeting. Spokesperson Jacqui Getty said the university doesn’t have plans to remove the house in the foreseeable future and that, in November, University trustees will consider a viable offer to purchase and rehab the property. But Goldstein said it’s a great source of frustration that there is no formal offer to transfer house ownership.

In an email, Getty said, “We had purchased the property a few years ago with a plan to remove the house. It is in significant disrepair and was that way when we bought it. Over the past several months, however, we’ve been in discussions with neighbors, some of whom have expressed an interest in coming up with a proposal to purchase the property from the university so they can rehab the house. Our Facilities Committee of the Board of Trustees is willing to consider that, and the committee members will review any such proposals at their November meeting. It is possible that the committee may determine that before they can make any decision about divesting of property that we may need to update our campus master plan. The last time we updated such a plan, it took a year.”

Attendees at the meeting said they also want to see the university reopen discussions of its 2008 master plan. It shows plans to add student housing, parking, classroom space and green space, much in places where 27 structures stand or stood. Some neighbors hoped the University would revisit the issue in light of stagnant university enrollment and the recent law school merger.

Getty said, that the next steps forward, as advised by the facilitators, likely will entail the creation of a neighborhood engagement or advisory group and a community update meeting this fall. She said that the engagement/advisory group would be a good vehicle for ongoing discussion of issues and opportunities that are important to both neighbors and the university. That discussion could include campus master planning. She added that the fall meeting would also be a good opportunity to talk through broader community engagement plans.

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Alex Liuzzi 1 slider

Como author writes book on transgender child

Posted on 06 July 2015 by Calvin


Alex Liuzzi 3The struggles and emotions of Joey, a nine-year-old child who is dealing with the knowledge that she is a girl growing up in a boy’s body, come alive on the pages of Alex Liuzzi’s book, “I Am Here.”

Como area resident Liuzzi said he has been writing since he was 12 and has explored a lot of different styles of writing, but he has found that taking on the voice of a child has helped him reach emotions much more easily.

“They are more raw, without a sense of vagueness behind them,” he said. “You get what the child is feeling immediately, and how they can react to these emotions.”

For this book, published in April, Liuzzi drew on his teaching experience, as well as his experiences in high school and college.

About ten years ago he was teaching at a middle school. “I had a rainbow flag on my door and often allowed very open conversations with my students,” Liuzzi recalled. “Some students felt very discriminated against based on their sexual orientation, so they asked me to start a Gay Straight Alliance with them.”

Liuzzi said these students opened up about the struggles they faced that adults didn’t seem to be helping with or even allowing them to participate in. He said the students in middle school were just starting to face their sexuality, but for many of them it was gender confusion.

“How do they have that conversation with adults, and how do other kids see them?”

Liuzzi said he switched from teaching at a public school to a private Quaker school, which had very open values and conversations with students, with mutual respect for everybody.

“It seemed like things were changing. But then I switched back to teaching in public schools and while there was more openness, there was a little anger from some kids when other kids stepped outside the established norms.”

Liuzzi said he also drew on his experiences during high school and college with the gay community in writing this book and creating some of the characters.

Liuzzi said he started the book with the premise that the core character, Joey, was a child who was confused about her  gender. “But as soon as I started writing, I knew the book would be about more than gender confusion. This child was going to know she was in the wrong body.”

Liuzzi said as he progressed with the book, he let the other characters come in, and the story unfold.

“With some novels I have gone back, and made lots and lots of edits and taken out some of the characters,” Liuzzi explained. “That wasn’t the case with this one.” He said it felt like every character was doing something for the transition in Joey’s life

“There was a purpose for every character, and it doesn’t always happen that way,” Liuzzi continued. “Some characters feel right when they’re coming out, and then I go back and they feel like they’re a waste of space.”

This book is Liuzzi’s third published novel. His first was “Center of the Universe,” a second person narrative written in a “you do this, you do that” sort of voice. “It’s about a 24-year-old who is going through a life crisis, and it’s a little quirky,” he said. His second novel was called “Over Mud Creek” and is told in the first-person voice of an eight-year-old. His family takes in and fosters a homeless child, and the story is about his interaction with that child and his family.

“That book and the current one are the only two younger voices I have used, of the many books sitting on my shelf that are not published,” Liuzzi said with a smile. “They still need lots of editing.”

Doing the editing is the hardest part of the writing process for Liuzzi. “It’s going back and seeing how I can help say things better, have an order and flow. It’s always felt unnatural.”

He took a class at the Loft 10 years ago that he said was essential in helping him see that editing is a necessary part to make the book readable and not just a voice coming through.

“Writing is the easiest part,” Liuzzi said. “As soon as I get a character that speaks to me, it is the easiest thing in the world. I sit down, and I don’t want to stop. The character becomes very separate from it. It is me making sure their voice is heard vs. me working to write.”

Liuzzi’s first writing experience at 12 was a Halloween story about two characters wanting to push each other down a well. “It was sort of a scary story of how it was going to happen,” he said. “I haven’t read it in a long time, but I think it was pretty horrible. But the teacher read it to the class, and I remember thinking that maybe I could tell stories in that way.”

He wrote short stories for a few years and then started writing poetry in high school. In college, it was back to short stories, and he wrote his first novel when he was 21.

Liuzzi got his undergraduate degree in history and taught social studies for many years. He left teaching to do a Ph.D. in international development. “After finishing half my program, we became pregnant with another child,” he said. “I have two teenagers. Now I stay at home and watch my five-month-old part-time and work at the Minnesota Board of Teachers part-time. So the amount of time for writing has actually shrunk.”

But no matter what he has been doing, Liuzzi has kept writing. “Writing is the one creative expression I have to do,” he said. “I have done other creative things in my life, but they come and go. Writing is some part of me that needs to be released.”

He usually has written at a desk in his bedroom, but a recent move provided him with an office. He writes at night or early in the morning while the rest of the family is asleep. “I can’t write when other people are around or awake,” he noted.

Liuzzi has already started his next novel, a science fiction story about a woman who has lost her father.

Although Liuzzi usually has his characters struggling with some issue, he said he always likes there to be some lightness to his books.

“I’m a happy ending person,” he explained. “When I read or write, I like there to be some sense of hope at the end.”

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Hamline Galtier schools slider

Parents seek solutions to save neighborhood schools

Posted on 06 July 2015 by Calvin

Steady enrollment decline threatens the future of Hamline Elementary or Galtier community schools


Declining enrollment in Hamline Elementary and Galtier Community schools has raised concerns among parents. They gathered June 8 at Hamline Elementary, 1599 Englewood, along with representatives from the St. Paul Public Schools, to discuss the matter.

Expressing satisfaction with the opportunities and offerings of both schools, parents wanted to know how to raise enrollment figures and make sure that one of the schools would not face closure in the next couple of years.
Jessica Kopp, who has a daughter at Hamline Elementary, said that when her daughter started school, every teacher she talked to was inspiring and amazing.

Hamline Galtier schoolsPhoto left: Parents, public school officials, and concerned community residents met June 8 to discuss the continued declining enrollment at Hamline and Galtier schools. It was a brainstorming/working session. (Photo by Jan Willms)

“I know that every day my daughter has come here for the past few years, she has been well taught,” Kopp said. “She’s a smart kid, and she is not being short-changed coming here. She is being challenged. Her teachers recognize her ability and also offer her opportunities in areas she needs to improve. They have taught long enough and have experience and intuition. I can’t imagine a world where my daughter doesn’t get to have an awesome teacher.”

Kopp also praised the Hamline to Hamline collaboration, a partnership between the elementary school and Hamline University. “The University has people and services our kids can access,” she said. She described the 5th-grade class pairing with the college law school, holding a mock trial on campus in which the elementary students play the roles of defense and prosecuting attorneys. The grade schoolers can also use the pool at Hamline University. “It’s like a second campus,” Kopp said.

Kopp commented on the Hamline University students who come over to assist with classes at the elementary school. “These are enthusiastic young people who are patient with the children,” Kopp said. “I have watched how they crouch down and engage with children at their level, helping with schoolwork or comforting them when they have a bad day. You don’t get that at many places.”

Mara Martinson, a Galtier parent of a kindergartner, said she had been a student at Hamline University and had been a part of the Hamline to Hamline collaboration. She said she had initially heard Galtier had gone through changes, and there were concerns with behavior problems and test scores. She added that after starting her child there, she had decided to stay.
“The change in principal and staff could not be better,” Martinson said. “The principal knows every child’s name; he knows my husband’s name and what he likes to do in his spare time.” She said she was happy with the children’s behavior and their support for each other.

“My personal experience has been nothing but positive,” Martinson added, “and my daughter has shown a lot of growth in the last three years.” The Galtier Community School parent said she grew up in a small town, and the Midway offers that same small-town feeling. “I want urban, but also the experience of my kids’ riding bikes down to their friends’ houses,” something that goes along with a community school.

“I can’t say enough about my experience at Galtier and what it means to my daughter,” Martinson said.

Jackie Turner, chief engagement officer for St. Paul Public Schools, told the parents at the meeting that she was excited about the opportunity to collaborate with them on a solution.

“No decisions have been made about Hamline or Galtier,” she assured them. “We do know we have some realities to face, but it is an opportunity for us at the grassroots level.”

She described Hamline and Galtier as looking different in the school year of 2012-13. “Hamline was a district-wide magnet, and so was Galtier,” she said. “That meant that families from all over the district could choose to come to Hamline or Galtier.” She described Galtier as a technology magnet and Hamline as a language academy. She said Hamline had 550 students at the time. In 2013-14, Jie Ming, the Mandarin Immersion Academy, and Hamline were located at the Hamline school, with 490 students. She said that in 2014-15, Hamline Elementary was down to 291 students, excluding pre-K.

They project 250 students for the Hamline community school for the coming school year.

“The enrollment has steadily declined over the past three years,” she noted, “for no particular purpose, just different types of programming.”

Turner said the school district is looking all over the city at different growth patterns. The elementary population is growing on the east side, with a little bit of a bump in the Highland and Groveland areas. She said the most significant growth is on the east side, and they will need a new middle school. ”We don’t always have the right buildings in the right places,” she stated.

Turner said more numbers of kindergartners are needed at Hamline Elementary, enough so that two classes could be formed.

“If we can have some commitment from parents, we might be able to work hard and get a second section of kindergarten,” Turner noted. “We’re going to be as flexible and open as you want us to be.”

She said the district will be surveying parents to find out why they may have left St. Paul public schools.

Talking in small groups, parents attending the meeting June 8 came up with some ideas to promote their community schools. Getting the word out about the Hamline to Hamline collaboration was a top recommendation. Another was getting prospective families together to visit the school and feel more comfortable with it.

Some said that as parents, they were excited about having an art and music curriculum in the school.

Being proactive and marketing Hamline and Galtier was also emphasized. Suggestions were made to have a table at the Fair in conjunction with Hamline University, and to be a presence at community events.

“We need to have a show of force and a show of love for our community schools,” one parent stressed.

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MN Chemical 3

Minnesota Chemical Company celebrates 100 years in Midway

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Calvin

The company is now owned by the third generation of Bakers—and the fourth generation is also involved


MN Chemical 4It’s been 100 years since Irish immigrant R.P. Baker began the Minnesota Chemical Company (MCC) in the Midway area, and today his grandchildren are running the family business.

Photo right: The Minnesota Chemical Company has been located in the same area for 100 years. Originally located at 2207 Wycliff Ave. in St. Paul, it moved one block over to Hampden Ave. in 1937 to be closer to a rail line and to gain warehouse space.

“We have changed with the times,” remarked President Mike Baker. “We have taken good care of customers and provided a good living for our employees.”

Mike and cousins Steve and Dan own Minnesota Chemical Company. They took over in 1985 from R.P.’s sons (Robert, Dan and John Baker) when the “Baker Boys” retired together. They led the company for 40 years through recessions, competition, inflation, and a host of other challenges.

MN Chemical 3Photo left: R.P. Baker’s three sons, (left to right) Bob, Dan, and John, left their management roles at Minnesota Chemical Company to serve in the military during World War II. The Baker Boys retired together in 1985 and passed the company down to the third generation of Bakers.

The Baker Boys had taken over after their father’s death in October 1943 during World War II.

The three boys had left their management positions at MCC when war broke out; Dan and John joined the Army Air Corps, and Bob joined the Army. All three served as officers based on their experience as cadets at Saint Thomas Military Academy.

According to a history compiled by MCC, the trio hit the ground running when they came back from World War II. When they rejoined the company, a primary focus was manufacturing soap for the laundry and dairy industries, and the only location was in St. Paul.

Within a decade, the “Baker Boys” moved the company away from manufacturing of soap. They refocused the company on distributing a full range of supplies, and eventually equipment, for commercial and institutional laundries and dry cleaners throughout the Midwest.

In 1952, a Milwaukee sales office/warehouse was also established. In 1962, an equipment sales and service office was added in Waverly, Iowa.

‘I felt my place was here’
Robert’s son Steve started working at MCC as a kid, cutting the grass and cleaning the bathrooms on Saturdays. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a liberal arts degree in 1975, he started working full-time at Minnesota Chemical.

He never considered another career path. “I always felt my place was here,” stated Steve. “I never had the pull to do anything else.”

Five years later his cousin Mike also started working at MCC.

It was Mike’s dad, John Baker, who discussed retirement with his two brothers, and the “Baker Boys” retired on the same day in 1985. MCC passed into the hands of Steve and Mike, and Dan joined as owner a few years later.

MN Chemical 1Photo left: Brothers Steve (left) and Dan, along with cousin Mike (right) own Minnesota Chemical Company today. They strive to follow in their grandfather’s footsteps and treat their customers ethically.

“It was a very orderly and peaceful transition,” recalled Steve. “They never looked back.”
Robert passed away in 1998, Dan in 2006, and John in 2010.

Steve has seen many changes in the industry during his tenure with Minnesota Chemical. “The stuff we sell today is very different than what we sold when I first came into the business,” he remarked.

The chemicals are more earth-friendly than they were, and the equipment is much more efficient, he added.

They currently serve Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and parts of South and North Dakota. Customers come from a variety of industries, from healthcare, athletic clubs, hotels, and motels, dry cleaning, and coin operated laundries. Many of their customers are also family-owned businesses that they have served for decades.

Dan has been in Wisconsin for much of his career and has switched from selling supplies to equipment, and from laundries to coin-operated laundromats. Those shifts have kept him engaged in his work.

As distributors, much of their success comes from getting good lines of products to sell, he pointed out. “You’re only as good as the lines that you carry,” said Dan. Their suppliers include Milnor, ECOLAB, and Pariser, among others.

Mike also credits a shifting industry as the reason he has continued to enjoy his job. “Customers have different needs, and they come to us with problems looking for solutions,” he observed. “Since I concentrate on equipment, mainly large washing machines and dryers, sometimes it is a matter of helping customers making better use of machines they own. Other times we can help customer staff be more efficient with newer, more productive equipment.”

An ethical company
Steve thinks that the main reason that MCC has been in business for 100 years is that they’re an ethical company.

“Ethics matter today,” observed Steve. “You have to be fair and consistent with all your customers. You have to do what you say you’re going to do. You have to warranty stuff.”

Steve has been a Rotarian for 30 years and is a founding member of the St. Paul Sunrise Rotary Club. Recently, while reciting the Rotary Four Way Test, he was struck by how accurately the document describes the Minnesota Chemical Company’s way of doing business.

Steve isn’t sure if R.P. ever saw a copy of the Four Way Test, but “its core ideas influences everything we do at MCC – being truthful, being fair, building good will, building friendships, and being mutually beneficial to us and our customers,” he said. Steve’s father and his uncle John were also Rotarians.

Steve Baker never knew R.P. as he died young. “I’m sure he’d be proud and probably a little amazed it was still going,” commented Steve.

Immigrant success story
MN Chemical 2His grandfather was an immigrant success story. He journeyed from Ireland to America as a teenager, and first worked in upstate New York selling woolen goods.

When R.P. moved to Minnesota, he discovered that most soaps were being transported to the state from the east coast. “He realized there was an opportunity there,” said Steve.

Photo right: Irish immigrant R.P. Baker founded Minnesota Chemical Company in 1915 in the Midway area of St. Paul. His three sons took over after his death and the end of World War II, and ran it successfully for 45 years before passing the reins to the third generation of Bakers. Today, R.P.’s great-grandson James works at Minnesota Chemical.

R.P. and several other Irish immigrants began manufacturing soaps and cleaning compounds.

MCC founders were originally attracted to the Midway area in St. Paul for two reasons—proximity to the Minnesota Transfer Railroad’s hub and the presence of meat processing plants in the area. The plants provided a critical component in soap manufacturing: beef tallow.

R.P.’s handwritten ledger from September 1915 lists cash in the drawer at $10. Cash paid out ranged from sponges at 15 cents to stamps for 10 cents–and “car fare” for a dime (i.e. a taxi cab fare).

Salt was one of the biggest company expenses that month: $2.67 for hundreds of pounds.
Among the cleaning products that were being produced in the early years was the product Nokomis Bubbles. The hand-written recipe lists salt, tallow, grease, and borax.

The company’s soap and cleaning compounds were so popular that Minnesota Chemical Company expanded into an eight-state area in the Midwest within a decade.

The company was first located in a small building at 2207 Wycliff St. Then it moved to a 50,000-foot-space on Hampden Ave. in 1937 because of frontage on a spur rail line and lots of ground-floor warehouse space. It had once been a mammoth 300,000-plus-square-foot three-story building that took up a whole city block. But, eventually, most of the building was torn down, and a portion remaining on its eastern edge was purchased by MCC.

Today, the building is too large for MCC and is up for sale. They no longer need space for manufacturing, explained Steve.

They currently have 27 employees spread out among their locations.

What they’ve always appreciated about the Midway area is how central the location is.

Laundry is as basic as it gets
Dan is very proud of the fact that MCC is a fourth-generation, family-owned business. “Not many people can say that,” he observed. “We’ve been able to prosper in the good times and bad times.”
Although the industry continues to evolve and change, Steve is confident there will always be a place for MCC. “Laundry is about as basic as it gets,” said Steve. “It’s got to get done somehow.”

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River of Goods 3

River of Goods, Terrybears helping to renew neighborhood

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Calvin

Two businesses share site with urban farm and community garden

Reporting and Photos by TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN

River of Goods 1Photo left: Twenty-five years ago, Terry and Margie Commerford began selling teddy bears and brass items out of their truck in the Twin Cities. Today they’re established in the Midway area with two thriving businesses, and they’re helping renew the neighborhood.

When Terry and Margie Commerford considered where they wanted to locate their businesses, they knew one thing.

They wanted to be where people live.

Their companies, River of Goods and Terrybears Urns and Memorials, had been housed in a commercial area in a suburb at one time, but they didn’t like it.

“We made a choice to be in a neighborhood instead of an industrial park,” observed Terry.
In Jan. 2015, they marked three years at their 946 W. Pierce Butler Rte. facility.

Over the past 25 years, they had rented warehouse and office spaces throughout the Twin Cities, including the Midway area, and were ready to own, recalled Commerford, who lives in South Minneapolis. Their realtor connected them with the St. Paul Port Authority, which was working to revitalize the property.

According to Terry, it had been a swamp, then a dump. Then it was filled in. A bowling alley was built. The seven acres became crime-ridden, and the Port Authority stepped in. They cleaned it up and sold it to the Commerfords for $1.

Stipulations of the agreement are that they employ at least 60 and hire from the neighborhood.
“I really believe in urban renewal,” commented Terry.

River of Good 2In addition to housing their two businesses, the property is home to the Our Village Community Garden on the southeast and Stone’s Throw Urban Farm on the west.

Photo right: In addition to housing the two businesses (River of Goods and Terrybear Urns and Memorials) owned by Terry and Margie Commerford at 946 W. Pierce Butler Rte., there is a community garden and urban farm on site.

“It’s nice to have the community here,” Terry remarked. “I truly enjoy the neighborhood.”

Using land for more than lawns
“This plot is an example of taking advantage of land that would otherwise just be lawn,” stated Sarah Garton of Stone’s Throw. “It supports a local business. It would otherwise just be a chore for someone else.”

River of Goods 3Photo left: Sarah Garton of Stone’s Throw Urban Farm harvests red oak leaf lettuce from the 1-acre plot at 946 W. Pierce Butler Rte. “This plot is an example of taking advantage of land that would otherwise just be lawn,” stated Garton.

Stone’s Throw expanded this year, and now uses about one acre. In all, they farm two and a half acres at 14 different lots through South Minneapolis and Frogtown. A wide variety of fresh greens, heirloom tomatoes, and herbs are grown and sold through CSA shares and farmers markets. It’s a for-profit farm that also engages in community work, according to Garton, which makes it different from many other farms.

Terry pointed out that another benefit to having the building at 946 W. Pierce Butler Rte. is the increased efficiencies they get from combining two businesses in one building.

River of Goods supplies local gift and floral shops with unique decorating products and light fixtures. They serve catalog buyers, retail shops, corporate buyers, TV shopping networks and more.

Terrybear Urns and Memorials designs and provides handcrafted, affordable cremation urns. Customers include distributors, funeral homes, families and pet owners.

They were like cowboys
In some ways, Terry and Margie are a long way from where they began.

“We started selling stuffed animals out of trucks on street corners,” recalled Terry.

When they began importing brass items from Korea and India, they continued hawking items on the streets. “We had this weird combination of brass giftware and stuffed animals,” said Terry.

They decided to move into the Eden Prairie Mall, and then opened a brass store in Burnsville. What followed was 15 years where they opened and closed about 400 retail stores. During one holiday season, they set up and took down 22 stores. Malls liked them because they helped fill space and looked permanent, noted Terry.

They had two stores that were the exception: the Tiffany Collection Store at the Mall of America and the River of Goods store at Hwy. 280 and Como.

In time, they had to make a choice to continue in retail or become wholesalers.

They opted to focus on being wholesalers.

For Terry, managing a workforce that was constantly turning over wasn’t what he wanted to do. He prefers to build a team and nurture a stable workforce.

They also decided to hire someone else to serve as CEO and president 13 years ago.

“That was the best thing I’ve ever done because it brought a lot of discipline and professionalism to the business,” Terry said. “We were like cowboys running around opening businesses and working on street corners.”

Today, Lavina Lau is the CEO of both River of Goods and Terrybears (which split into separate businesses about 15 years ago). Margie is the on-air talent for Shop NBC. Terry is the sourcing specialist and frequently travels to India and China, where they have 15 full-time employees.
“I’ve got 2 million miles on Delta alone,” Terry observed.

“I love it because I love it”
He has fun doing his work, and greatly enjoys the various facets of his job. “I love it because I love it,” Terry explained.

He especially enjoys traveling to work with vendors in India, some of whom he has worked with for 25 years.

He also appreciates the design component of his work.

Recently, they moved the manufacturing of their lily lamps from a facility in China to one inIndia that can produce a higher quality product at a lower cost. “Now the customer will end up with items at a lesser price, and they will be delighted,” said Terry.

“I love delighting a customer with an item that is the best in its class.”

Downton Abbey Lane
In January 2015, River of Goods launched a new line at the Atlantic Gift Show, one based on lighting found in the PBS television series Downton Abbey.

The line includes 25 original designs, including decorative floor and table lamps, wall sconces, accent lamps, pendants, and chandeliers. There are one-of-a-kind and hand-crafted stained glass, crystal pendants and chandeliers, elaborate shades with tassels and fringe, and ornate bases.

“Everyone kept saying we have lamps that look like Downton Abbey,” explained Terry. So they reached out to the show and embarked on a one-year process to create lighting fixtures that closely resemble those on the show.

“They’ve been really good to work with,” observed Terry. “It opened a lot of doors for us.”
He pointed out that their number one concern when it comes to lights is always that they are safe. Next come good designs and pricing that fits.

“We don’t carry lamps you’ll find in the big box stores,” said Terry.

As wholesalers, they primarily sell direct to businesses, but individuals can purchase some of their items on their website: www.riverofgoods.com/.

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TU Dance 149

TU Dance: A smorgasbord of summer classes in their new expanded space

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Calvin

Feature and Photos by MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN

TU Dance 149Photo right: McCall Atkinson, Sophia McLaughlin, Keenan Schember and Maia Fernandez outside the entrance to TU Dance Center.

Tucked behind the Subway Restaurant at 2121 University Ave. W. is a brick industrial building that formerly housed a cabinet factory. For the past five years, the repurposed space has been home to one of the Twin Cities’ most beloved dance companies: TU Dance.

TU Dance is named for its founders: Toni Pierce-Sands, who grew up in the Como Park and Summit-University neighborhoods, and her husband, Uri Sands from Miami, FL.

Pierce-Sands was a young stand-out at Minnesota Dance Theatre, where she and her sister Kristi were two of a handful of dancers of color in the 1970’s. “That experience, plus living in Minnesota at a time when it was much more homogeneous than it is now,” she said, “really made me long for racial diversity.”

TU Dance 023Photo left: Students in the pre-professional program take a variety of classical ballet, modern, West African, repertory and workshop classes.

Pierce-Sands packed her bags and moved to NYC in the early 80’s, where she saw a rainbow of faces in the dance world. She joined the Alvin Ailey Company, the unquestioned premier, multi-racial, modern dance company in the country. After two years, Pierce-Sands moved to Europe and became a lead dancer with troupes in Cologne, Germany and Paris, France.

Returning to Ailey’s company in the early 90’s, she met Uri Sands: a gifted dancer and choreographer.They eventually married and on a visit home to St. Paul years later, Sands said,

“We should really think about building our lives here.”

“I realized New York was my heart home,” she reflected, “but St. Paul was my family home.”
Once here, the pair became, as Pierce-Sands noted, “two patrons of the arts.” She taught at the University of Minnesota, and they gave themselves a couple of years to envision what it was they could bring to the dance community that wasn’t here already.

“We went to see so many dance performances during that time,” Pierce-Sands said. “What was clear after the first one was that there were very few dancers of color on stage, and very few people of color in the audience.” Pierce-Sands continued, “The Twin Cities had grown so much racially in the years we’d been gone, but it wasn’t being emulated on the dance stage – at least not enough for us.”

That was about to change.

TU Dance 005In little more than ten years, TU Dance has become a cornerstone of the Twin Cities dance community. With a full fall and spring performance schedule each year, the company brings a vibrant, highly trained and multi-racial company onto the venerable stages of the Ordway, O’Shaughnessy and Southern Theatres, among others.

“We always knew we would have a company and a dance center, we just weren’t sure which would come first, Pierce-Sands said.

Photo right: Destiny Anderson, 16, has been a student at TU Dance Center for the past two years. She came with no classical training, but with a love for movement and a serious hip hop practice. Destiny has been accepted into Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Summer Intensive, a rigorous ballet program  in New York City.

Once their 12 member company was established, Toni and Uri went about the business of starting their school. They rented several spaces but until Board member Leif Ericson found this location, there wasn’t a sense that they were home yet.

Phase I of their 2010 building renovation gave TU Dance a grand first-floor studio and other accommodations. With generous funding from the McKnight Foundation, construction is nearly finished on Phase II. A gracious second-floor studio with rooftop views, two new bathrooms, a sitting area, and gleaming office spaces will be ready in time for their expanded summer schedule.

TU Dance 072Photo left: Camille Horstmann, a 17-year-old dance student at the St. Paul Conservatory, also studies at TU Dance Center six days/week. Recovering from an ankle injury, she came to class to observe even when she couldn’t participate. Camille has been accepted into this year’s Alvin Ailey Summer Intensive.

Alongside regular classes, TU Dance will be offering a smorgasbord experience called Summer Dance Intensives beginning July 6 through Aug. 22.  Special child and teen programming for new dancers introduces students to the joys of movement. The classes will help develop confidence around body awareness, coordination, balance, flexibility, and musicality. And they’re fun! For experienced dancers through age 23, there will be modern, ballet, African and repertory classes offered at the pre-professional level. Check out the website at www.tudance.org/summer for more information.

Observation Week is through June 13 at TU Dance, when children and adults can visit classes to get a sense for what they’re all about. Financial aid is available, and no one will be turned away for inability to pay. Dance apparel (there is a dress code) is provided through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board.

The name Pierce-Sands and Sands chose for their dance center is something one doesn’t come across every day: a triple entendre. TU is their combined signature, the “T” and the “U” from their first names. It’s a play on words and an invitation to dance. Lastly, the word tu, in French, is the familiar or personal form of the pronoun you.

The invitation to dance is extended to all members of the community, as is the invitation to enjoy watching dance as a performance art.

“We see ourselves as ambassadors of dance,” Pierce-Sands concluded, “and we love the idea of welcoming new people in.”

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CHAT slider

Center for Hmong Arts and Talent: Summer events to CHAT about

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Calvin

Feature and Photo by MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN

CHATPhoto left: CHAT Executive Director Fres Thao.

“The Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT) has the distinction of being the first and only Hmong arts organization ever established,” according to executive director Fres Thao. Located in the Sunrise Market Building at 995 University Ave. W.,  the 2nd floor CHAT studio is a place where Hmong youth can come to create art and find community.

The Hmong are a distinct ethnic group from the mountainous regions of Laos. They began arriving in Minnesota in 1975 as refugees from the devastation of the Vietnam War. With some 66,000 Hmong having settled here, the Twin Cities is now home to the largest urban Hmong population in the country.

Thao, an eloquent spoken-word artist, explained the history of CHAT.

The organization began as Pom Siab Hmoob Theatre, which translates as Peering into the Heart. Between 1991-97, the company wrote, produced and performed five successful plays. In 1998, organizers decided to expand beyond theatre to better serve the Hmong arts community. Pom Siab Hmoob had been the first Hmong theatre group in the world. Traditionally the Hmong specialize in poetry, dance, woodwind instruments and textile arts; theatre has only recently become part of their cultural expression.

The mission of CHAT is for youth to live, learn and create art with a purpose. That means making a platform for traditional arts but also diving into new ways of making art and new ways of thinking. Thao said, “Everything we do here is Hmong-inspired, infused with leadership development and an emphasis on community building for our youth.”

On June 9, CHAT launched their summer season of Open Studio from 4-7pm. This weekly get-together is facilitated by the Youth Leadership Group (YLG), but, “all teens and older are welcome and you don’t need to be Hmong,” said Thao. There will be karaoke, movies, and opportunities for performance. CHAT supports many ways of venturing into the world of art and creative expression. They provide guidance and support in the areas of visual arts, theatre, literary arts, dance, music, fashion design, mixed media and more. “There are three questions that figure into every conversation here,” said Thao. “Who are we, where have we been and where are we going?”

The YLG is open to youth ages 14 to 20 years old. It got its start in 2008 and this year has 15 members, according to senior member Zena Lee, a student at St. Paul College who also loves singing. YLG is for youth interested in developing leadership and community organizing skills through service-learning projects and theatre arts. At the end of the program, YLG members write and perform a play in collaboration with the Asian American theatre company Mu Performing Arts.

“I moved to St. Paul from Wisconsin when I was 14,” Lee said. “The Hmong community is so big here, and YLG gave me a place to belong. The counselors are always saying things like, ‘we’re all family’, and it really does help to know there’s a place where you can go and where you’re understood.”

There are some 300,000 Hmong living in the USA. According to Thao, the annual Freedom Celebration and Sports Festival at Como Park’s McMurray Field is the most anticipated Hmong event of the year.  CHAT is one of the community partners who will make this event happen July 4 and 5. This year’s celebration is expected to draw more than 40,000 people over its two-day run.  Neighbors should be prepared for a busy weekend. Thao suggested, “Rather than being irritated by the crowds and the unfamiliar sights and sounds, please consider them your invitation to join us for a new cultural experience.”

The cost of admission is $5 for the whole day. There will be competitions of soccer and volleyball, Hmong artists from across the country selling their work, and food booths overflowing with papaya salad and sizzling Hmong sausages, among other things.

One of the three stages will be dedicated to performing arts and managed by the YLG, with Hmong music and entertainment for youth. YLG alumni Wong Thao, a hip-hop dancer, serves as sound tech for the CHAT performance stage. “It’s volunteering for these kinds of community events that have made my experience with CHAT most meaningful,” Thao said. ”I’ve been exposed to so many different people and organizations, and it feels satisfying to work as a group and give back to the community—Hmong and otherwise.”

Because parking and traffic have been challenging in the past during the festival, look up the location of parking lots with shuttle service, take the bus, ride your bike or walk to the event.
On the night of July 4 from 9pm-1am, Bedlam Theatre in downtown St. Paul is hosting the CHAT Adults’ Freedom Fest Concert. The performers haven’t been finalized yet but, according to Thao,

“They’ll represent the multi-cultural talent of the Twin Cities and be well worth staying up for.”
Visit the CHAT website at www.aboutchat.org to learn more about their leadership development and art opportunities for Hmong youth in the community.

To better understand the contributions the Hmong have made in the last 40 years, be sure to visit the Minnesota History Center’s exhibit “We are Hmong Minnesota/Peb Yog Hmoob Minnesota,” which runs through November 29.

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River-School-0032 slider

Local school ranked best IB high school in Minnesota

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Calvin

Article and Photos by JILL BOOGREN

River-School-0032Photo right: sign in front of Great River School

Great River School in the Como-Midway neighborhood earned top marks from U.S. News & World Report this May when it received a Gold Medal Award and was ranked Minnesota’s #1 high school. It’s a high honor for a small, public charter school in the heart of a big city.
“It’s a very fun time here at the school,” said Lucy Suits, communication and outreach manager for the school and parent of a student enrolled there. “It’s an opportunity to show what’s working.”

The ranking was based on math and reading test scores and college readiness, which factored in the percentage of students taking college-readiness tests and how well they did. Evaluated against other International Baccalaureate (IB) schools (see “2015 Best High Schools in Minnesota,” pg. 5), Great River School outperformed the rest.

While staff appreciate the recognition, they are quick to point out that these scores don’t define who they are as a school.

River-School-0018Photo left: Head of school, Sam O’Brien

“The award doesn’t measure all the things we do to support students,” said Head of School Sam O’Brien. “It’s a conventional validation of how our students are doing.”

And by all accounts this is an unconventional school. Tucked among office buildings along Energy Park Drive, Great River School is a public Montessori school, one of three in the state serving high school students, according to the USA Montessori Census. It opened 11 years ago serving grades 7-12 and has since added grades 1-6.
Here there are guides, not teachers, and a head of school, not a principal. Students are taught in mixed grade levels. Recess is 45 minutes long, and the school is designed to allow students to move freely. There are no desks, only tables and chairs, accessible outdoor spaces, and a kitchen where students can cook for each other.

“You don’t see a school designed to take tests,” said O’Brien. They operate under a deep belief in the students and their opportunity to learn and grow. It’s their notion that all students have dignity, and it is the job of staff to support it.

“Every student has the potential to do whatever work they want to do,” said O’Brien. If a student is interested in something but finds the course work challenging, he explained, the message is “you just need to work at this,” not “it’s not in your capacity.”

Students at work
River-School-0005Photo right: (left to right) Great River School students Elena Biggs (7th grade), Gabi Vazquez-Thorpe (7th grade), and Anna Himango (8th grade) sort spices for their upcoming 100-mile bike trip in Wisconsin.

Outside during recess on a cloudy Friday morning, elementary-age students play together on a small hill. Another student digs in the mulch, while another is engrossed in a Harry Potter book.
Inside a large, adjacent building called the West Campus, a rock band rehearses while middle-grade students prepare for an upcoming 100-mile bike trip in Wisconsin. Seventh graders Elena Biggs and Gabi Vazquez-Thorpe, and Eighth Grader Anna Himango, organize spices for cooking.

Students are arranged into different crews for cooking and cleanup on the trip, Biggs explained. Himango said they take a lot of trips during the school year. “It makes our school special,” she added. Depending on grade level, students may spend time in Horton Park or the Como Woodlands. Or they may visit a farm, go camping or canoeing, or take part in an archeological dig.

“There are more options than a lot of schools,” said Biggs. “It feels like more of a community.”
All of this is very intentional. At Great River School, social development is considered just as important as academics. At recess and on these exploratory trips, students are learning how to live with, and help, one another.

River-School-0047Photo left: Andres Badillo Moorman, 12th grade, pitches in at Great River School.

Outside the school’s front entrance, high school students shoot hoops and play Frisbee (the school has an Ultimate Frisbee team) while Senior Andres Badillo Moorman digs dandelions out of a plant bed.

“I learn best at this school,” he said. “They do a lot of hands-on things. Service, for one.” On Wednesday afternoons, he explained, students are given time to develop their CAS (Creative, Activity, and Service) work. It’s part of the core of the IB Diploma and may involve anything from tending a garden to learning to play the violin. Badillo Moorman enjoys reading with the elementary students.

“We can help a lot of the kids,” he said. After graduation Badillo Moorman hopes to either get a five-year apprenticeship at an electrician program or try for an associate’s degree.
Cooperation is highly valued over competition at the school. Students have a lot of responsibilities but are given a lot of freedom to make choices about how to do their work. Unlike at many IB schools, everyone at Great River participates in the IB program; they’re all in it together.

The aim, according to O’Brien, is to develop executive thinkers in cooperative, creative, supportive academic systems—making them the problem solvers of tomorrow. They’re in the business of building character, community, human dignity— not usually the first things that come to mind when thinking of standardized tests.

It’s more important, suggested O’Brien, to “trust in students’ capacity to succeed, not measure their ability to succeed.”

There are hints beyond conventional indicators that students are succeeding at the school: the student exhibiting confidence in a subject matter that was previously out of reach; the graduates reporting a smooth transition to college; the alumnus serving on the school’s Board. Still, when 83% of students take at least one IB test—a number that far exceeds the rate for other ranked schools in the state—you know something is working.

River-School-0022Photo right: Teresa Hichens-Olson (left), a Bush Fellow and parent of both a current student and an alumnus of the school, and Lucy Suits, the school’s  communication manager and parent of a student at the school.

“It’s really a validation of how powerful the students are,” said Teresa Hichens-Olson, a Bush Fellow and parent of both a current student and an alumnus of the school. “If you remove fences and boundaries, the bars aren’t there. They see beyond the bars.”

A painting on the surface of the front parking lot, student-conceived and -stenciled, perhaps says it best: “You can do anything you want to do. This is your world.”

Great River School (1326 Energy Park Dr.) is a tuition-free, public charter school that serves grades 1-12. It is a Montessori IB school, with no requirement to have been in a Montessori program to enroll there. Students are selected by lottery. The school also hosts summer camps, open to everyone ages 4-14. You can contact them by phone, 651-305-2780, or by email at www.greatriverschool.org

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Mister Michael Recycles 08

Bike shop in Midway is on a mission

Posted on 13 May 2015 by Calvin


Mister Michael Recycles 08Shop owners Michael and Benita Warns have a lot in common. They own a business together: Mister Michael Recycles Bicycles at 520 Prior Ave. N. They’re “tandem people,” who enjoy riding their bicycle built for two. They’re both engineers, they abhor waste, and they really like giving away recycled bikes.

By their own estimates, they’ve given away more than 4,000 bicycles in the course of their ministry, which is what they call their work. In 1998, a young boy in their Midway neighborhood saw Mike and Benita were always tinkering with bikes. He dragged one over to their garage and asked, “Can you fix this?” The bike wasn’t much, but that young neighbor, who is grown now and a vital part of the shop team, figured it’d get him around. It did that and more. The broken bike started a 17 year friendship between the three biking enthusiasts, and launched a business idea.

“Our main focus is on giving away bikes,” Benita said. “Among our diverse recipients are low income kids, college students, new immigrants, neighbors, residents of half-way houses, and homeless people. Our bikes are available to anyone – we don’t have an intake process or ask any questions.”

The shop operates on a break-even basis and succeeds because the raw materials are free, and volunteers donate many hours of repair time and skill.

There is a small selection of repaired/refurbished bikes for sale, as well as an assortment of new and used bike parts.

Customers can bring their own bikes in for repair at the rate of $15/hour. Ninety percent of the income earned goes right back into upkeep and operation of the store. The remaining 10% is given away to charity. The volunteers designate a different charity each quarter; recipients from 2014 included the ALS Foundation, Feline Rescue, Anne Bancroft Foundation and Sisters Camelot.

Mister Michael Recycles 12Michael and Benita make the rounds of various community recycling centers and pick up bikes that are considered junk. “Those that are beyond repair, we tear apart,” Michael said,  “but we salvage as many parts as possible and use them to repair other bikes. We’ve been able to keep a whole lot of metal from going into local landfills.”

They’ve been at their current location for seven years. “We operated out of our garage at first,” Benita said. “Over the course of ten years, we had to keep renting more garages and it didn’t make sense to have bikes stored in so many different places. We needed a more formal arrangement. When we heard that 520 Prior Ave. was for rent with a retail front and six garages out back, we figured it was just about perfect.”

The store is open for business on Tuesday and Thursday from 7-9pm and Sunday from 12-4pm. Those are also times when volunteers are invited in to help repair bikes for give-away. Bring your bike repair skills, whatever they might be, and learn to answer the question yourself, “Can you fix this?”

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