Midway United Fund ready to disburse grants


Debate over who serves on committee and whether there should be paid staff continues

By Jane McClure

The Midway United Fund is accepting applications for small economic justice grants in the Hamline-Midway and Union Park areas. Grants are available until Dec. 20 or until funds are exhausted.

The grants offer two opportunities, a damage recovery program and a rebuild or relocation program. The grant programs are overseen by the Neighbors United Funding Collaborative. As of deadline almost half a dozen businesses had inquired about the grants.

The damage recovery program has more than $349,000, and the potential to serve at least 21 businesses. Businesses can seek up to $15,000 for needs including smoke and water cleanup, glass replacement, replacement of stolen goods, lost inventory and any other damages they experienced due to the civil unrest.

More than $500,000 is available through the rebuild and relocation program, with the potential to serve at least 10 businesses. Businesses can apply for up to $50,000 for rebuilding or relocation costs due to evictions.

Businesses must meet criteria, with priority given to businesses within a half-mile of Allianz Field. Businesses in the University Ave. corridor within three miles of Allianz Field must prove their businesses were affected by civil unrest. Businesses must have annual sales revenues of $2 million or less.

People will visit businesses as “small business connectors” to help get the word out about the grants.

Issues about management

The announcement that funding is available may not stop the weeks of debate over the fund. The notion of a community fund centered on the Allianz Field Major League Soccer stadium first came up years ago, with Ward One Council Member Dai Thao as one of the fund’s early champions. It was originally launched by the city council and area district councils as a means to provide funding for community-building, small businesses, arts and other projects in the neighborhoods around the stadium. Union Park District Council (UPDC) and Hamline Midway Coalition (HMC) have led fund planning and have oversight, working with the St. Paul Foundation and the collaborative’s advisory committee.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the late May civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death changed the fund’s priorities. Earlier this year the fund allocated grants to small business affected by the pandemic. After businesses were looted, damaged and set ablaze in late May, the fund shifted to provide assistance on that front.

The collaborative and its advisory committee generated debate over the summer, with a clash over who should be on the committee and how it should operate. People of Color contended the committee didn’t represent the community and pushed White committee members to resign. The committee is now more diverse, with committee member and community development veteran Isabel Chanslor calling herself the interim fund manager.

Should there be paid staff?

UPDC and HMC questioned the time it was taking to get grants out, and what were seen as personal attacks on district council staff. HMC bowed out of its fiscal role in July, with the nonprofit Nexus stepping in.

The notion of paid collaborative staff has drawn objections, including from Thao. He and some district council members said money should go businesses, not staff.

Chanslor said funds donated for businesses will only go to businesses. The collaborative has raised separate money for administration. “We never intended to use funds donated for businesses for administration,” she said.

While saying they are pleased that grant applications are available, city council members Thao and Mitra Jalali are watching the collaborative and the grant process closely. Thao said he wants to see “transparency and accountability” in how funds are allocated.

The city council members are looking at the staff issue, with Thao against advisory committee members paying themselves with donated funds. That’s a concern raised by some district council and community members, but Jalali said the district councils lack capacity to staff the advisory committee and that staff is needed.

At a recent board meeting, UPDC board members brought up the prospect of a business development fund spinning itself off, and the collaborative going back to its broader original purposes. Chanslor said that is something the committee has discussed, as it looks at ways to support the Midway, its small businesses and arts community.

Jalali is staying positive. “I feel hopeful about the fund. It feels as if we’ve turned a corner,” she said. “We need to get resources out to the community. That’s what is really important.”


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