Promoting a vision for Minneapolis’ North Side

In his State of the State speech last week, Gov. Mark Dayton addressed the elephant in the room — the equity gap in both education and income between whites and people of color in the Twin Cities, frequently cited as among the worst in the nation.

Dayton said he had spoken at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce meeting and urged business owners to examine their recruiting and hiring practices and search for a solution to help solve the gap in employment between the groups.

“It’s time we stopped holding our schools and educators solely responsible for closing our state’s opportunity and achievement gaps,” Dayton said. “Every facet of our society has a part to play.”

Both the founder and the CEO of Thor Construction, one of the largest black-owned construction firms in the country, couldn’t agree more. In fact, it’s a message they’ve been promoting for several years. Now they hope to lead the effort by moving two of their businesses to north Minneapolis, perhaps drawing several other companies with them.

Thor’s founder, Richard Copeland, has a tangential connection to the most recent strife on the North Side. Copeland’s trucking company once employed Jamar Clark, the young man whose shooting by police during an altercation ignited protests and the occupation of the Fourth Precinct police station late last year.

Ravi Norman, CEO of Thor, clearly has been thinking about how businesses can have an impact on changing the dynamics of equity in the cities. He delivers bullet-point presentations on what has to be done and uses phrases such as “place-based transitional approaches” and “connected capacity-building” to talk about the broad philosophical questions.

Norman, who has degrees in economics and finance, foresees their eventual dream of an “entrepreneurial and innovation hub” that would work with young potential employees of color to find their “inspirational voice” and “aspirational dream.” That means coordinated business and vocational training, mentoring, and entrepreneurial direction by including the University of Minnesota and institutions such as the Black Chamber of Commerce to increase the number of black business owners.

It’s a big dream that starts with Thor, which boasts revenue north of $150 million. The company has worked on many of the largest projects in the region, including the football and baseball stadiums.

“There is no question firms have to be part of the solution,” said Norman. “What we are trying to do is a unique concept. We want to create a regional shared prosperity model and convert from a deficit-based approach to an asset-based approach. It’s not just building a building.”

On paper, the vision would call for first moving Thor headquarters and Thor Sustainability to north Minneapolis by next year, though all the details have not been worked out. They have a long way to go, including land acquisition and finding both public and private partners.

“Internally, it’s been on our radar for a while,” said Norman. “The question is, ‘when do we have a healthy enough balance sheet to make it work?’

“We need to go ahead and set a leadership approach. If you are going to ask the private sector to make a commitment to the issue, you need to be ready to take the lead.”

Copeland was not available to talk, but he recently told Twin Cities Business magazine that he has spoken with as many as 10 businesses about joining Thor in its role to begin changing the dynamics of the local economy.

“We are also talking about building housing, we’re talking about building commercial space and we’re talking about building sustainable space,” Copeland told the magazine. “We’re asking for supporters and partners in this effort. The African-American business community needs to lead that initiative.”

Thor Construction does business in several U.S. cities. I asked Norman why he thought Minnesota’s equity gap was worse than other places. He said part of the reason might be that our top side is higher than many places, making the gap wider. “Some places don’t have as many assets,” he said.

“It’s a certain kind of culture. We see ourselves as Minnesota Nice,” Norman added. “We say we are great in Minnesota. We can’t always acknowledge we have some weaknesses.”

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