Years ago, officials with Hmong American Partnership approached the city of St. Paul about converting the vacant office building at 240 Plato Boulevard E. into a job training facility for health care workers, among other certifications. State lawmakers smiled on the nonprofit’s plans in 2019, authorizing $5.5 million in state general obligation bonds for design and construction, with the city serving as the requisite local government partner.
Months later, during a groundbreaking ceremony that brought out young Southeast Asian dancers and a bevy of elected officials, the leaders of the St. Paul-based nonprofit presented a much broader vision — a nexus of immigrant-driven services. Their plans paired job training with a Montessori pre-kindergarten program, and even a new high school expansion site for the Community School of Excellence, then still a K-8 charter school.
City officials were taken aback. The nonprofit’s plans seemed to have shifted and grown beyond the initial written intent shared with lawmakers. How had a proposed job certification site also become a charter high school?
As months passed and discussions between the city and nonprofit reached impasse, state officials questioned why the city’s chosen nonprofit partner hadn’t picked up the $5.5 million in authorized state bond funding, leading to some frustration and embarrassment at City Hall.
Nearly five years after lobbying state leaders to collect bond funding through the city of St. Paul for new job training centers on Plato Boulevard and 150 Sycamore St. W., Hmong American Partnership — a nonprofit that works closely with a number of the city’s immigrant communities — appears ready to collect the cash through another means entirely.
An unusual partnership with Ramsey County
Hmong American Partnership, or HAP, broke off talks with the city in 2020 and now plans to access the same state funding with Ramsey County as its local government partner. The change in dance partners required months of talks with state lawmakers to alter key authorization language.
During a county board meeting Nov. 15, outgoing Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough said getting that language drafted and approved roped in county, state and city staff, with talks sometimes taking frustrating turns but ending on a positive note.
“I think I’ve been a part of this project for about five years, and HAP has been a part of this project for actually going on 10,” McDonough said. “Not only did we spend a year and a half trying to make this work at the county, but before we got to that, we spent a year and a half trying to make this work at the city.”
As part of the technical arrangement, Ramsey County will lease the Plato and Sycamore buildings from HAP through ground leases and then lease them back to HAP through use leases, ensuring a certain level of oversight.
For the county, that’s a significant departure from business as usual. While Ramsey County, which has its own Public Health, Social Service and Human Services departments, frequently contracts nonprofits as public health liaisons and social service providers, it rarely serves as a pass-through for state general obligation bond funding for nonprofit ventures. That’s common practice for the city, but not the county, which doesn’t traditionally maintain staff to do site inspections for grantees.
“This is a very unique situation,” said Ramsey County Board Chair Trista MatasCastillo, during the Nov. 15 vote to partner with HAP. “This is not something Ramsey County is set up to do, typically.”
Despite years of back and forth over the state bond funding, HAP’s $14 million capital campaign continued, allowing the nonprofit to install job training at the 240 Plato site, now dubbed HAP Academy OIC. On its website, the Community School of Excellence advertises openings for ninth and 11th graders at 240 Plato, and a sign on the building’s back entrance welcomes students. A high school administrator could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
The HAP website also advertises a year-round pre-K Montessori program at 240 Plato, though whether that program remains in operation at the site is unclear. A receptionist answering phones Tuesday at HAP’s University Avenue headquarters was unable to find any information, though signage at the Plato building advertises the Hmoob Toj Siab Children’s House.
A childcare reviewing website, childcarecenter.us, indicates that the childcare center closed in August 2021.
The 2018-19 funding question
At the November meeting of the county board, May yer Thao, president and chief executive officer of Hmong American Partnership — who inherited the funding imbroglio when she joined the organization little more than a year ago — expressed gratitude to the county for stepping in. Calls to May yer Thao were not returned Tuesday or in mid-December.
How the situation unfolded
State general obligation bonds, which come with heavy city and state compliance requirements, were negotiated by city lobbyists for a variety of nonprofit projects in 2018 — the first year of St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s administration — including the proposed job training facility on Plato Boulevard, the Lower Phalen Creek Project’s Wakan Tipi nature center, the Minnesota Humanities Center by Lake Phalen and the Sanneh Foundation’s improvements to the Conway Recreation Center.
All of those nonprofit projects have since collected their state bond funds except for HAP, leading to some tense behind-the-scenes discussions between the nonprofit and city officials through late 2020.
By June 2020, St. Paul officials had become alarmed by HAP’s plans to dip into state bond funding to situate the Community School of Excellence charter school and a Montessori daycare within the Plato site. The expanded use of the property was not authorized in the state appropriation language for the “Southeast Asian Language Job Training Facilities” project, according to Crystal King, a spokesperson with St. Paul Planning and Economic Development.
The state office of Minnesota Management and Budget proposed a solution to HAP to convert the property along the lines of business condominiums, King said, which would allow for the charter school and daycare to be co-located with the job training facilities. “The city and state agreed that the condo option would resolve the expanded use issues,” said King, in an email.
On Sept. 9, 2020, more than a year after their groundbreaking, city officials learned that HAP no longer intended to move forward with obtaining the $5.5 million in general obligation bonds allocated through the city. “Representatives from the HAP team informed the city, state and legislators that the condo process, from their perspective, was not a viable option for reasons related to financing, and that HAP was instead choosing to obtain additional private sources of financing for the project,” King said.
Former HAP chief executive officer Bao Vang resigned shortly afterward in early 2021, and Jodie Tanaka was appointed by the board to serve as interim director in February 2021. May yer Thao has led the organization since October 2021.
It’s taken nearly two years, but the revised language in the state funding application now indicates that the county, not the city, is the local government entity partnering with HAP. County officials said that after lengthy discussions with key lawmakers, the Legislature allowed the changes to the language during a special legislative session on June 29, 2021, and the governor signed it into law the next day.
The updated funding documents indicate that despite a “primary focus as a workforce training facility,” a portion of the Plato site may be used for child care facilities open to the public but “primarily intended to improve programming outcomes for students and participants of the training programs.”
In addition, a portion of both the Plato and Sycamore sites may include on-site supportive services to guide job training participants toward housing, mental health services, adult basic education and health care.