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Financially troubled Fridley arts center needs $15K to stay open

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Dire financial pressures and a bit of bad luck have put the future of a nearly half-century-old Fridley arts center in jeopardy.

The North Suburban Center for the Arts needs to raise $15,000 by April 30 or it will cease operations, Executive Director Aly Rhodes said. Even if a last-minute fundraising effort is successful, the money would cover expenses only for the next few months, leaving the center’s long-term future unclear.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Rhodes, who joined the staff in September and took over as interim executive director in February. “We have gone through several stages of grief.”

The center has suspended registration for summer camps and put plans for Burbfest, its largest fundraiser of the year, on hold. Another charitable event at Forgotten Star Brewing, featuring crafts, a raffle and a dance party, is still a go for April 28.

“We have a very good plan going forward if we can get through the next six weeks,” said Board Member Ann Bolkcom, a Fridley City Council member. “We just need to get over this hump.”

The arts center’s financial problems have been mounting for the past two years. In 2021, the Anoka County Board voted to stop paying the center $50,000 annually to host classes, exhibitions, family events and other programs. The County Board also evicted the center from its longtime home in the county-owned Banfill-Locke House.

Anoka County Parks determined the former tavern and farmhouse needed $1.5 million in repairs. The County Board voted to end the arts center’s contract as a result.

In 2022, the center moved to a decommissioned fire station it rents from the city of Fridley for $1 a month. At that time, the Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts rebranded itself the North Suburban Center for the Arts (NSCA).

There have been plenty of obstacles to overcome in the new location, including an electrical fire that broke out the day the lease was signed. The furnace had to be replaced, and the center had to pour new concrete floors and remodel parts of the building. The NSCA also became responsible for utilities, which added thousands of dollars in expenses.

“We didn’t spend money on frivolous things,” Bolkcom said, adding that volunteers donated furniture and put in many hours painting and plastering walls. “There is a lot of love for this place. And a lot of love put in it.”

Some missteps may have contributed to the arts center’s plight. Rhodes and Bolkcom said the former executive director, Abby Kosberg, failed to apply for grants that would have provided desperately needed income this year, and some required forms necessary to maintain nonprofit status went unfiled.

In February, the NSCA received a letter from the state Attorney General’s Office stating that its 2021 Charitable Organization Annual Report, which would allow it to solicit contributions, had not been filed.

“I immediately took action to clean up the mess,” said Rhodes, who said she recently hand-delivered outstanding documents to the Attorney General’s Office to keep the arts center in good standing. The organization was re-registered as a nonprofit, a March 3 letter from the Attorney General’s Office said.

In a phone interview, Kosberg said she worked tirelessly to apply for grants, but in some cases the center was not eligible for them. During her three-year tenure, grant and gift income rose from $65,400 in 2019 to $82,700 in 2020, the organization’s 990 forms show.

Kosberg also said the organization’s business model that relies on earned income — not solely grants — was “radically rocked” by the pandemic.

“It’s disappointing that they are simplifying to that one thing,” Kosberg said. “There are a lot of moving parts. It was not for a lack of effort. I tried my best. It’s unfortunate they are in this position. I wish them well.”

Funding is tenuous for all small arts and cultural organizations, she added in a follow-up email.

All artists have been paid and bills are up to date, Bolkcom said. But three staff members, including Rhodes, have gone months without paychecks.

Fridley Mayor Scott Lund said there has been no talk of using city money to help.

“The city already gives them a pretty good deal,” he said, referring to the nearly free rent for the former fire station at 110 77th Way NE. “They are in dire straits. Hopefully they won’t close.”

The NSCA had its most successful holiday market ever in December. The event brought in a record $15,000, with a portion of that remitted to artists, Rhodes said. And the center is already applying for grants for 2024, she said.

But without more income soon, this month’s “Weaving the North” exhibit featuring works by members of the Weavers Guild of Minnesota could be the center’s last.

“This has been an icon in Fridley,” Bolkcom said. “It would be incredibly sad and devastating to close.”



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Striking workers shut down Minneapolis Park Board meeting with three-hour protest

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Workers who are striking the Minneapolis Park Board for the first time in the agency’s 141-year history took the fight over their stalled contract negotiations to commissioners Wednesday night, demonstrating at their meeting for three hours straight until the board was forced to adjourn without getting anything done.

Commissioners Becky Alper and Tom Olsen started the meeting by attempting to amend the agenda with a resolution directing park managers to promptly settle with union workers. They asked the Park Board’s negotiating team to offer Local 363 a proposal with market adjustments that union leaders have committed to accepting verbally and in writing, but without the contract takeaways the union calls “poison pills” — such as provisions to reduce the number of stewards, double probation time for new hires and make automatic seniority raises discretionary.

“This unprecedented situation diverts our attention from our primary mission: preserving, protecting‚ maintaining, improving and enhancing parks,” said Alper. “Without this resolution we face as the Park Board a perilous path forward. It’s one with no end in sight. It’s one where we gradually crawl out of this hole while parks deteriorate, where workers’ families are impacted without paychecks and dissatisfaction grows among the public.”

Commissioners Alper, Olsen and Billy Menz supported amending the agenda to allow discussion of the resolution. However, Park Board President Meg Forney, Vice President Cathy Abene and Commissioners Steffanie Musich, Elizabeth Shaffer and Becka Thompson rejected the amendment (Commissioner Charles Rucker was absent).

Workers in the gallery shouted their dissatisfaction, asking why the commissioners refused to end the strike, now in its third week. The work stoppage has disrupted storm cleanup of the parks, canceled concerts at the Lake Harriet bandshell and caused maintenance jams across the system.

The only dissenter to respond was Thompson, who said she did not understand how the contract offer described in the Alper-Olsen resolution would affect the whole system. Menz, who voted to amend the agenda, added that his colleagues did not want to appear unsupportive of their negotiating team, which includes Superintendent Al Bangoura.

Kevin Pranis, Local 363′s marketing manager, said park officials were negotiating like they wanted to break the strike rather than settle it. He said it was only after seven months of stalled negotiations, and a 94% vote by Local 363 membership to authorize a strike, that the park negotiating team locked onto the “poison pill” takeaways.

“What’s happened now is that management has decided, after 140 years of Park Board history there’s never been a strike, that the goal … is now to make sure that for another 140 years no one will consider striking because they got hurt so badly in this strike,” Pranis told commissioners. “That no other union will ever consider going on strike.”

Every time commissioners attempted to move onto other business, park workers and allies from other unions formed a picket line around the board room, chanting “No contract, no peace!” and “What’s disgusting? Union busting!”

Individual workers spoke directly to commissioners, saying they had received discipline without due process and describing grievances they have pending with managers that likely have not risen to commissioners’ attention.

As the demonstration dragged on without comments from the dais, commissioners ate their dinners and had whispered conversations with each other and park lawyer Brian Rice, while the union ordered dinner from Portillo’s.

Commissioners finally walked out of the room around 8 p.m., three hours after the meeting began, without working through the agenda. Items not acted on included a resolution to transfer $10 million from neighborhood parks across the city to the redesign of North Commons Park, and extension of the lease for the Boys and Girls Club at Phelps Park.

Terryl Brumm, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of the Twin Cities, left the meeting early, saying that while the Club’s lease of the Phelps Recreation Center now technically expires, she was confident the Park Board won’t evict them.



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Rochester blocks comments on city social media pages

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ROCHESTER – Residents here with questions or concerns about city government will no longer be able to use official city social media pages to air their grievances.

On Wednesday, the city of Rochester began restricting social media users from leaving comments on posts from its official Facebook and Instagram pages, as well as pages for parks, police and other departments.

City Administrator Alison Zelms said the policy is in response to what she described as “counterproductive” activity on the city’s social media pages.

“Discontinuing the use of comments effectively reduces the potential for harmful content and negative interactions because it removes an unmoderated and monitored forum for those activities,” Zelms wrote in the announcement.

Comment sections on city posts were typically not monitored by departments, city officials said, due to “staffing challenges” and a prioritization of resources to other city needs. Rochester Public Schools also no longer allows public comments on its posts.

Mayor Kim Norton, who has spoken previously about the negative interactions she has had online, also disabled comments on her pages on Wednesday. Users will now only be able to react (by emoji) to posts or reshare a post with comments to their own personal pages. Norton said she remains available by phone or email.

“I believe this change will support our efforts to provide information, and also to create a better, safer digital environment for all,” Norton said in a statement.

Within hours of the announcement, threads on other sites began filling up with questions about the legality of the new city policy, with some users suggesting it amounted to censorship.

But Dr. Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said the city is within its rights to discontinue public comments on its social media channels. Kirtley noted that while local governments cannot block comments based on one viewpoint or another, they are under no obligation to manage a public forum on social media.

“They can decide to discontinue the public forum if they choose,” Kirtley said. “If they do allow public comments, they can only impose reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner. These restrictions must be viewpoint neutral.”

On social media threads — ones not managed by the city — there were a few users who defended the government’s decision to restrict comments, noting that city threads are often cesspools of comments from people trolling and harassing public officials.

But overwhelmingly, users were critical of the move. One commenter wrote that while “the change may simplify some aspects of the city’s social media management … eliminating open dialogue among constituents on the platforms most people use to connect is certainly not going to improve community engagement or help build trust in local government.”



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Judge blocks MPCA from restricting hours at St. Paul iron foundry accused of pollution

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A judge has blocked the state from limiting operating hours and imposing other restrictions intended to reduce air pollution from a St. Paul iron foundry.

Earlier this year, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ordered Northern Iron, LLC, to limit its daily operations to control airborne lead and particulate matter, which can damage the lungs and circulatory system when inhaled.

But in a ruling issued July 11, Ramsey County District Judge Leonardo Castro partially granted Northern Iron’s request for an injunction, preventing the state from enforcing limits on how much metal the company could melt in a day and what hours it could operate. Northern Iron says the agency’s demands would make the foundry go out of business.

The judge left intact other provisions of MPCA’s order, and ordered the business and the agency to work together on a new air permit and installing new pollution control equipment. MPCA has said the business’ own modeling shows it is releasing pollutants at thousands of times the level allowed by law.

Alex Lawton, CEO of foundry owner Lawton Standard, told the Star Tribune that after the ruling, he “felt relief for the folks who were laid off that who wanted to come back to work.” The company announced shortly after MPCA’s order that it would have to cut 15% of its workforce, but is now operating with its full staffing of about 80 employees.

MPCA said in an email sent out shortly after the ruling that it “respectfully disagrees” with the decision.

“We stand ready to hold the company accountable should pollution emissions exceed [air quality] standards, to protect the health company employees and nearby residents,” agency spokesperson Andrea Cournoyer wrote in a statement.

Northern Iron opened at 867 N. Forest St. in St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood in 1906. It molds made-to-order components that other companies use in finished products. Lawton Standard bought the business in 2022.

Sidney Pisano, vice chair of the Payne-Phalen Community Council, said the court decision has left the neighborhood feeling “disregarded.”

“It feels like we don’t matter, and I think that’s a sentiment a lot of East Siders have felt for a long time,” she said.

The situation has played out differently than the regulation of another urban iron casting company. Smith Foundry spurred complaints of bad smells and air pollution for years from neighbors in Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood. The EPA took the lead on an investigation there, after a surprise inspection last year, and got the foundry to agree to shut down its furnace and casting operations in a settlement. Some in the area were frustrated it took action by EPA, not MPCA, to address the issues.

In the Northern Iron case, MPCA has led the enforcement, including a $41,500 fine imposed on the foundry last year for changing its pollution controls without reporting it to the state. Lawton said the Smith Foundry case was hanging over the regulation of his own business, and suggested it had encouraged regulators to take a stronger hand.

“I think Smith and certain other factors like that seemed to be omnipresent,” he said.

Since the fine last year, MPCA and the foundry have been discussing how to reduce its emissions. After one round of modelling showed that the particulate matter and lead released were thousands of times higher than federal rules allow, Northern Iron then came up with new calculations to show how the emissions would change if they altered their hours or installed new equipment.

The particulate pollution would still be higher than allowed, and the calculations for lead “seemingly defy the conservation of mass and likely cause an underestimate of lead emissions at some sources,” according to MPCA’s administrative order.

The company contends that it’s not polluting, because monitors stationed around the foundry show the air doesn’t exceed state limits on contaminants. It is still planning to install two air filters and make other improvements at the building, a project that will cost around $2 million, Lawton said.

But Cournoyer said that the foundry’s current permit requires it to use modeling to show it is meeting air quality standards.

The foundry and the state agency will next be in court on Aug. 22, when MPCA will argue to dismiss the case. Northern Iron said it plans to submit a new air permit application by August.

“I feel glad the MPCA is keeping the pressure on,” Pisano said.



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