Keystone food center gets $1.7 million boost

New University Avenue building will open in 2023 as needs jump with inflation


Construction on Keystone Community Services’ planned new food center gets underway in January, with a goal of opening the doors later in 2023. That’s welcome news to anyone who has relied on the food shelves in their current cramped quarters, and or has volunteered there.
Keystone CEO Mary McKeown said the nonprofit is eager to move ahead and build out a new facility. Keystone owns a former transmission replace shop at 1790 University Ave. and a former furniture store at 1800 University Ave. Both businesses moved out of the area several months ago.
The one-story buildings date from 1917 and 1923. The oldest building was part of University Avenue’s fabled “auto row” days and once housed a car dealership that sold Model T Ford vehicles.
Raising enough money to renovate the buildings is the focus of Keystone’s Opening Doors to Food Security campaign. The goal is to raise $8.5 million for the food center. The drive is more than halfway toward its goal.
Keystone had hoped for state funding from the 2022 Minnesota Legislature. Nonprofits, working with host cities, can seek state dollars for brick-and-mortar projects. But a bonding bill, along with a lot of other legislation, stalled at the end of session.
Keystone officials then turned to the City of St. Paul for help. The St. Paul City Council, acting Nov. 9 as the Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) Board, awarded two federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) loans for the new facility. That funding is enough to get work started.
One loan is for $1,260,214 million. The second loan is from the CDBG CARES Act Program and is for $439,786. CARES is a federal COVID-19 relief program, with a deadline of 2023 for the city to spend the money. The two loans will be combined with a third loan issued earlier.
“This funding really gives us the boost we need, to get the project underway,” said McKeown. “It helps us fill a funding gap.”
In 2021, the plan was to phase in work on the building shell, and continue fundraising. But a combination of increased project costs and rising demand for services forced Keystone to rethink that approach. The nonprofit’s board voted to expedite the project.
Keystone’s board also voted to assume debt, something not typical for a nonprofit project, McKeown said.
Demand for service at Keystone’s two food shelves and its mobile food trucks has more than doubled. The trucks stop at more than 30 destinations a month.
More people are having to choose between food and paying rent and fuel costs, said McKeown. Keystone is seeing people who have never used a food shelf before.
The new facility will help meet increased demand. It will have more off-street parking, and garage space for the food mobiles. The food mobiles are currently parked outdoors and have had their catalytic converters stolen.
The new facility is meant to be a consolidated, transit-accessible foods center. The 20,000-square-foot center will vastly increase Keystone’s capacity to receive and warehouse available food resources, improve logistical support for mobile food services, and provide a grocery-store-like shopping area for participants to select culturally-specific foods to meet their household’s needs. It will also have private spaces where Keystone Resource Navigators can meet with clients. The new space will have large community rooms to support group volunteerism and community meetings and events, according to a city staff report.
There will be space for up to 50 volunteers at a time, more than then five or so helpers who can be accommodated now.
The new building will also have much more freezer and refrigerator space.
City council members said they are pleased to see the project move ahead, noting that Keystone serves people throughout St. Paul. Keystone currently has food shelves at 1916 University Ave., and on Rice Street in the North End. Those will close once the new facility opens. Clients at many locations are served by Keystone’s two food mobiles.
The city has helped the food center with other funding. The city council in August 2021 approved a $56,443 Neighborhood Sales Tax Revitalization (STAR) grant for the project. A request for 2022 funding was turned down.
In October 2021, the city council approved a $902,255 CDBG loan to Keystone. All of the loans are expected to be forgiven over time.
McKeown noted that this summer, Keystone saw its number of first-time clients more than triple, from 1,251 in August. That compares to 364 first-time clients in August 2021. Households are coping with wages not keeping up with inflation, and the inflationary impacts of all household expenses.
Keystone will maintain other community locations once the food center opens, said McKeown. Those include administrative headquarters and senior programming at Merriam Park Community Center, senior and youth programs at West 7th Community Center; and youth programs at the Keystone Best Buy Teen Tech Center and at McDonough Community Center. The Express Bike Shop in Lexington-Hamline neighborhood will also remain open, although the new University Avenue building will provide needed basement storage for bikes.


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