Mpls. Youth Center Appeals to City for New Home

Posted at: 01/16/2013 6:34 PM
Updated at: 01/29/2013 1:16 PM
By: Mark Saxenmeyer

They keep kids in school, and out of trouble. But a Minneapolis youth center says it's about to lose its home.

Wednesday night, members of the organization showed up in force at the city park board meeting. They're hoping to re-locate to some city-owned land. They say their situation is dire--that their lease is up in June and the building they work out of may soon be sold.

Every day at "Banyan Community" in the Phillips neighborhood, about 120 kids arrive when school gets out. They've got homework to do.

"That's huge for parents because sometimes we don't know how to approach certain things," said Maricruz Arocho, a mom whose three children all belong to Banyan.

Then there's the mentoring, the counseling, the social activities.

"There isn't another program in the area that is meeting the same needs," said Miko Johnson, a single mother of two girls.

Banyan is a 15-year-old program - a safe haven in this high crime, low achievement part of town. Less than half of all kids who live in this neighborhood graduate from high school. "But at Banyon," said Joani Essenburg, the program's founder, "for over a decade we've been able to graduate kids from high school at 100 percent."

Essenburg started the program inside her home in 1998, it then expanded to the house next door, and then again to its current location at 2647 Bloomington Avenue South. But Banyan is now at capacity, overflowing, with a waiting list of more than 100 other kids.

"And we have moms that call us every month saying, 'Is there room yet? Is there room yet?' Essenburg said.

There isn't, because the building owners say they have no room for Banyan to expand. Making matter more nebulous, Banyan says it may have to vacate the premises because the owners are trying to sell the building to a church.

Keith Koenig, the property manager of the building, says it has offered Banyan a one-year renewal of its lease, when it's up in June. But he said he couldn't offer the group anything long-term. If the deal in the works to sell the building goes through, there's also no guarantee that Banyan would be able to stay. Koenig says Banyan offered $200,00 to buy the building but said the offer wasn't sufficient.

So Banyan is looking to move again, to buy a one-acre plot of vacant land at 2529 13th Avenue South. They've now offered the park board the same $200,000 for it. The money comes from generous donors; even more generous donors want to help Banyan build a new, multi-million dollar facility on the land.

Kids, parents, social workers, police officers and more presented an impassioned case to the park board.

"Without Banyan being here," Essenburg said, "these kids have the very real potential of being sucked into gangs, to be doing things they shouldn't be doing. Banyan gives them that positive place. It's like a family. It's a connection, and it's a place that just builds people up."

In the end, the Park Board's finance and administration committee voted to approve Banyan's land purchase proposal. Their recommendation now goes before the full park board early next month.

Mark Saxenmeyer can be reached at msaxenmeyer@kstp.com