St. Paul Port Authority aims to bring Hillcrest jobs, residents together

·4 min read

Time was that housing for workers was built within walking distance of their jobs. So it was in St. Paul, in neighborhoods from the East Side to Frogtown, with modest homes clustered near the city's factories, railroad shops and breweries.

So it could be again if the St. Paul Port Authority — developer of the former Hillcrest Golf Club — has its way. As officials firm up plans to redevelop the 112-acre site to provide 1,000 jobs and up to 1,000 units of largely affordable housing, they also are exploring ways to ensure that Hillcrest residents get a fair shot at working there. The Port Authority's goal is to attract light industrial businesses that not only offer good wages and solid benefits, spokeswoman Andrea Novak said, but also are willing to train an inexperienced workforce.

"On the East Side, we have a very heavy immigrant, refugee and working-class community area. A lot of folks don't get the proper investment that they need to get jobs with Fortune 500 companies," wrote City Council Member Nelsie Yang, who represents the area. "[Hillcrest] is such a wonderful start to that."

Rachel Speck, employer liaison for the East Side Employment xChange, pairs employers with area job-seekers and will be working with the Port Authority to find workers for Hillcrest. It's not enough to hold a job fair or post positions on a jobs website, she said.

Connecting through the places where people congregate — libraries, coffee shops and social service agencies — will attract a wider range of potential workers. So will letting people know which jobs can be taught on-site. Someone who has never worked in a printing plant might not know if they can do the work with some training.

"When there is an opening, how do I even know it's a job I can do, especially for entry-level positions that don't require a lot of experience?" she asked, posing the question of qualifications.

Even the design of the facilities can be key to connecting jobs with residents, Speck said. Seeing their neighbors through facility windows, entering through the front door, sends a message that area residents are welcome to work there.

Warners' Stellian has its distribution center and corporate headquarters in a Port Authority business center in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood near where the old Great Northern Railroad shops were located.

Many of the 200-plus employees at the 160,000-square-foot facility, which used to be a steel factory, live in St. Paul, said Robert Warner, company president. Dozens live within walking distance or a short bus ride away.

"It will work at Hillcrest," he said. "Ideally, people like to work close to where they live. This is a theme that is constant. It hasn't changed."

There is precedent. On the old East Side, people lived in neighborhoods that grew around Whirlpool and 3M, or near the Hamm's Brewery. In the West End, it was the Schmidt Brewery. In Highland Park, an area of more modest homes for workers was built south and east of the Ford plant.

"Our workforce is here in the urban core. It's not in Mahtomedi or Shoreview. It's here," Warner said. "So you don't put the factory far from the workers. You put it right where they are."

Adam Stansbury, general manager of Cintas, said 151 employees work at the uniform company's 71,000-square-foot facility northeast of downtown St. Paul, situated in a Port Authority development near a bus route.

For a company with a lot of entry-level jobs and a lot of workers who rely on metro transit to get to them, being close to where workers live helps retention and efficiency, he said. Being closer could help even more.

"We don't really have a lot of housing close by," he said. "It would be a big advantage if it was — just from a work-life balance perspective."

Paul Skytte, president of the Greater East Side Community Council and a lifelong East Sider, agrees.

"I am very optimistic about this," he said of Hillcrest. "This is something that is badly needed for our area."

When the big East Side employers left decades ago, nearby jobs became harder to come by. According to Minnesota Compass, 39% of East Side residents commute more than 30 minutes to work, 6% of households rely on public transportation and 12% don't have a car. Many area families have only one car, Skytte said.

Upward of 1,000 new jobs at Hillcrest — potentially paying more than $20 an hour — would go a long way toward restoring some of the economic stability the area enjoyed before 3M and Whirlpool left, he said.

"The East Side is well overdue for a project like this," he said. "The main thing is we want livable-wage jobs in our area. And we want to make sure [Hillcrest's future residents] have the first opportunity to get those jobs."

James Walsh • 612-673-7428

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