In the spring of 2015, a cohort of community partners will break ground on their newest affordable housing development: Beacon Hill. The project is a 48 unit permanent supportive housing complex in Grand Rapids, MN that provides support services to residents with multiple barriers to maintaining stable housing. Such barriers can include struggles with substance abuse, criminal records, or persistent mental health issues.
What makes the project stand out amongst other affordable housing projects across the state is the story of collaboration behind the project, a story that began in January 2013 with an initial stakeholders’ meeting led by Barb Sanderson, Commissioner of the Itasca County HRA.
Independent agencies become effective partners
Upon first meeting, Diane Larson, Executive Director of the Itasca County HRA and others could feel the momentum of the project already developing and a shared goal quickly emerged. The group rallied around the need for supportive housing, in part, because the team represents a range of local agencies and organizations all working with individuals who would greatly benefit from the model of supportive housing. The opportunity to work together to solve a commonly held concern added to the strength of the mission.
“More typical of the past was for each of these agencies to ‘go it alone. It was my desire to pursue more in-depth collaboration between local agencies to facilitate housing opportunities for our local area.” -Dana Herschbach, Director of Housing and Asset Development at KOOTASCA Community Action
Housing Institute, a program of MHP and Greater MN Housing Fund, designed to support groups like the one developing in Grand Rapids to collaborate efficiently around regional housing needs. In the year following, the team worked towards their goal, guided by MHP’s Community Development Director, Rosemary Fagrelius, who helped them understand the development process and how to strategically plan the implementation of a successful project.The team then applied and was accepted into the
“The Housing Institute provided the groundwork and tools to begin to understand what it takes to have any form of initiative. The Institute provided excellent training on funding streams, potential project obstacles, environmental impact considerations, financing and loan options, community engagement, but foremost was the training on how to build a strong working team to accomplish the task.” -Audrey Moen, Housing Manager at Northland Counseling Center
One of the first tasks in making Beacon Hill a reality, was engaging a developer. In a competitive, the team contracted with Skip Duchesneau of D.W. Jones Development, Inc. who worked with the team to assemble an application for funding. Members of the Beacon Hill team agree that working with Duchesneau is one of the best choices they made.
“A project such as this requires a great deal of expertise and knowledge in applying for funding, and Skip provided the expertise, the endless energy, and guided us through the entire process,” Larson said.
Another key step in the process was making the case for the project to potential funders and the community. The team engaged Maxfield Research Group, Inc. to conduct two studies: an assessment of the market demand of Beacon Hill and a broader, more comprehensive housing market analysis for Grand Rapids.
Team members worked together to secure funding for these studies from various entities, including contributions from all team members’ agencies, the Blandin Foundation, the Northland Foundation, and an award from MHP’s Sustainable Community Engagement Fund.
Both studies supported the development of the proposed project. Itasca County and the City of Grand Rapids collaborated to purchase the site and prepare a development agreement.
Collaboration is possible
The team built many technical skills during the project: courting developers, identifying funding streams, and communicating the need for the project; but perhaps the most important takeaway was the discovery that true collaboration is possible.
“The Itasca County Institute Team has been the best example of a true collaborative that I have experienced in my career. The commitment, the respect, and dedication has been a remarkable experience." -Lorna Mix, Community Support Program Director at Northland Counseling Center
In a world in which operation in isolation is often the norm, the Beacon Hill project serves as an inspiring example of unity. Team members hope their story will affect future models of cooperation in the community.
“Beacon Hill is an example of multiple agencies coming together to accomplish one goal efficiently and still be true to each agency represented. I sincerely hope that our agencies, and others in our community, will continue to collaborate on projects similar to this one,” Amanda MacDonell, Property & Program Development Specialist at Itasca County HRA said.
Photos by Patrick Photography, 2014.