Zoned for wealth and health: the Promise Zone, Green Zone, and Opportunity Zones are intended to help the area track toward prosperity


North Minneapolis is home to three government-designated zones, designed to bring attention and resources to chronically marginalized places. All three attempt to right economic and environmental wrongdoing, like redlining and lead pollution. Right now they are works in progress. Together, they have the potential to bring major dollars and transformative development to the community; but as with all change envisioned for the Northside, they trigger worry about the displacement that is typical of gentrification. 

By Kenzie O'Keefe and Cirien Saadeh

1. The Promise Zone

Most of North Minneapolis south of Webber Parkway was named one of 22 federally designated “Promise Zones” (PZs) in April 2015. 

PZs are “high poverty” areas where “Federal Government agencies partner with local organizations and leaders to increase economic activity, improve educational opportunities, and leverage private investment,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

PZ designations last for ten years. Four years in, the North Minneapolis Promise Zone (NMPZ) has led to about $19 million in federal funding (which had preference for PZ applicants) flowing into the Northside, says the Minneapolis PZ’s Director, Julianne Leerssen. She says the Minneapolis Health Department and Pillsbury United Communities (which owns North News) have been among the recipients. 

The boundaries of each of North Minneapolis’ zones overlap. Here, green lines indicate the green zone, yellow represents the opportunity zones, and blue showcases the Promise Zone.  Illustration by Emily Ronning

The boundaries of each of North Minneapolis’ zones overlap. Here, green lines indicate the green zone, yellow represents the opportunity zones, and blue showcases the Promise Zone. Illustration by Emily Ronning

According to the City’s website, the NMPZ has three goals “approached through a racial equity lens”: 1) building a more inclusive economy and spurring business growth through capital investments, 2) improving the health and safety of residents by improving community-police relations and 3) increasing access to healthy food, and encouraging stable housing. 

Appetite for Change (AFC) Founder Princess Titus says her organization had high hopes for the designation when it was announced in 2015. She says “some good partnerships” have come out of it, and AFC has received grant dollars that used the PZ preference point process. But, she says conversations about it seem to have stagnated. “It’s not that alive. I don’t see it. West Broadway is not different,” she said.

Leerssen says there have been some challenges in the NMPZ’s first four years: the slow pace of change, “keeping people’s attention on the Northside,” and that most of her staff, who are AmeriCorps VISTAs, turn over every year. 

But she says there have been successes too: dollars raised, “getting groups of people talk about economic development and actually work on some of those issues” and “pushing the envelope”   around more investment on the Northside and policing.

With six years of designation left, Leerssen says her dream is for “a big redevelopment project” to get started and be near completion. She imagines several blocks of vacant buildings being transformed by public and private partnerships that involve opportunities for some community ownership and prevents displacement due to gentrification. 

She also wants community members to know that NMPZ staff are "here to support organizations getting to the next level on their grantmaking for their programs in North Minneapolis," she said, noting that applying for federal grants can feel intimidating and that NMPZ staff are equipped to help.

2. Opportunity Zones

128 low-income census tracts in Minnesota were designated “Opportunity Zones” (OZ) by former Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton in 2018. Five of them are in North Minneapolis.

OZs are federally recognized areas where private sector investments in local development projects are encouraged through capital gain tax incentives. The OZ program has three phases: zone designation, fund creation, and investor attraction. Shauen Pearce, Mayor Jacob Frey's Economic Development and Inclusion Policy Director, says the timeline for designation was rapid and much has been decided as details at the federal level were still being worked out. Funds are slowly being created across the country and interested investors are awaiting further development of rules and regulations from treasury, said Pearce. “There are several incentives to the investors, at least one of which has some people racing to invest by December 2019,” she said. 

Pearce says the City intentionally designated areas that are publicly owned in order to support “inclusive” projects that forefront the community, especially people currently on the Northside: “We are focused on ensuring that the people who have invested in North Minneapolis for generations can start or grow their business, build wealth in the community, and benefit from the investments they have made as residents and business owners,” she said.   

But, incentivized private investment brings concern about gentrification. The OZ program is no exception to this fear: “It’s highly risky because the program itself doesn’t come with any rules or guidelines around that,” said John Bueche, Executive Director of the West Broadway Coalition (WBC). “People are still figuring out what the rules are going to be.” 

Northside resident Ian Alexander, who is currently contracted by the Minneapolis Promise Zone to look at OZ opportunities in North Minneapolis, says the OZ program is unlikely to “change things exceptionally” in the community. He says the average investor wants larger returns than Northside development projects tend to supply.  “You have to find a very specific developer who wants to do something charitable,” he said. 

Pearce doesn't see that as a problem: “Minneapolis is a great city for social impact investments and people who are looking to invest in new technologies, resiliency, and more. Communities within OZs are well-positioned for investments and have a host of projects that may qualify and ultimately facilitate inclusive growth.” 

The Mayor’s office, LISC Twin Cities, and the McKnight Foundation have helped lead local conversations about OZ opportunities. Pearce says community members can keep in touch with the process by reaching out to Mayor Frey's office directly regarding process and to the City's Business Development team for project related interests.

3. The Northern Green Zone

The Northern Green Zone is the City of Minneapolis’ effort to draw attention to environmental injustices faced by the city’s under-resourced communities. The designation was introduced in the City’s 2012 Climate Action Plan, and, according to the City of Minneapolis Sustainability Program Coordinator Kelly Muellman, community members have played a huge role in making the work happen.

“We've had a lot of community involvement over the last three to four years. Community members have driven and generated all of the recommendations and content for the Green Zones. We just act as facilitators, essentially,” said Muellman.

North Minneapolis’ Green Zone organizer is Roxxanne O’Brien, a community organizer contracted through the Environmental Justice Coordinating Committee. The Northern Green Zone Task Force, which O’Brien serves on, has met four times now. Their role is to work with city staff to identify activities and priorities, which is different for each Minneapolis Green Zone. In the Northside, organizers have focused on air pollution, lead in the water, asthma, and other issues. 

“The Green Zone has been about drawing attention to the environmental justice issues in Minneapolis and has been focused on collecting and organizing data in order for people to see the ways in which environmental issues happen and impact the Northside,” said O’Brien. According to O’Brien, the Northern Green Zone Task Force is also currently working on legislation in concert with Rep. Fue Lee (59A) including HF2778, the cumulative pollution analysis and HF 2739, the headwaters community food and water economic resiliency program.

"My hope is that North Minneapolis sets a precedent for what is possible in overburdened communities and what is possible for our environment if political will and resources are given to exploited communities," said O'Brien. 

O’Brien and members of the Northern Green Zone Task Force are planning a celebration on April 30, beginning around 7pm, to celebrate organizing work and wins related to Northern Metals. The location is Christ English Church, 3210 Oliver Ave. N. RSVP to O'Brien at 612-434-8868.

Kenzie O'Keefe