Brooklyns Minority Women in Business/Facebook

The Black Immigrant Women Who Bought a Minneapolis Mall

Lack of access to proper retail space was crippling these immigrant businesswomen in the Twin Cities. In forming a commercial real estate cooperative, they’re going far by going together.

Story by Oscar Perry Abello

Published on

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The receipts are in the group chat.

Every time a member of the Ignite Business Women Investment Group deposited an investment in the group’s account, board president Jannie Seibure’s phone would ping as a photo of the deposit receipt was posted in the cooperative’s WhatsApp chat.

A commercial real estate cooperative founded by Black immigrant businesswomen in the Twin Cities, Ignite formed in 2022 to collectively acquire commercial properties for members and other businesses serving their community.

Each receipt was proof of frustration from years of being ignored by landlords who didn’t want to rent space to an immigrant with an accent, and from renting from commercial property owners who overcharge for subpar spaces, drag their feet on repairs and maintenance, and evict tenants at the slightest delay in paying rent.

Each receipt represented the fruits of their labor as small business owners who come from all over the world — but mostly Liberia, Nigeria, Somalia and other African countries — and have now collectively purchased a strip mall in the Twin Cities.

“There was no way, no way [it would be] possible without the group coming together as a cooperative,” Seibure says. “It wouldn’t have happened.”

Four years ago, the women began meeting regularly to check in on each other’s businesses during the pandemic and share resources to make it through. A smaller group kept meeting to review the cooperative’s finances and draft its bylaws.

So far, the 27 members have collectively invested nearly $300,000 of their hard-earned savings into their commercial real estate cooperative. Those dollars were crucial to lining up the rest of the $5.2 million they raised from other sources to acquire the cooperative’s first property, Shingle Creek Center.

The strip mall with 18 storefronts — 14 occupied, four vacant when they acquired the property in October 2023 — is located in Brooklyn Center, a working-class suburb just north of Minneapolis where roughly a quarter of residents were born in another country.

Some members of Ignite Business Women Investment Group have been in business for more than 20 years, in spite of all that has been stacked against them. Many have spent the past decade running their businesses out of stodgy suburban office buildings rather than storefronts — but those office buildings were often the only spaces the market seemed willing to make available to them.

That includes Seibure, who owns Cavalla Travel & Tours. For years, she’s been renting space in an office building with dozens of other retail businesses like hers, just down the street from Shingle Creek Center.

“You pass by our building and there are over a hundred businesses in there and you won’t even know,” Seibure says. “They don’t want us to grow, but just to remain right where we are. Even some of the [retail] businesses that shouldn’t be in that building are there. Because of that their revenues are very low.”

That will change with the group’s new property. “With access to a space like the strip mall we just obtained, they can build their audience that way and they will be able to generate lots of revenue,” she says.

Needing space

After running a travel agency back in Liberia, Seibure arrived in Minneapolis 23 years ago with an accounting degree to work at a mainstream commercial bank. After 13 years, she hit a glass ceiling. So she cashed out her 401(k) and started a new travel agency as a side hustle, which she was able to parlay into a full-time gig thanks to her connections in corporate banking.

As her business took off, she repeatedly tried to find a storefront to move into. She has a vision to expand her travel agency into a luggage and travel accessory store, but hasn’t been able to find a space to make it happen – until now.

Seibure has contractors renovating one of the vacant storefronts at Shingle Creek Center. She plans to move in with her expanded business hopefully by April.

“For five years I would call mall owners, and when they call me back, they hear my accent and what I’m trying to do,” Seibure says. “They find a way to make it look like ‘oh, it’s not profitable, we’re not giving it to her.’ Now it feels like a dream come true.”

It was about a decade ago when Denise Butler first noticed all these traditional retail storefront businesses being located inside office buildings that weren’t originally designed for such uses. She’d just started a new job with African Career, Education, & Resources Inc. (ACER), a nonprofit established in 2008 to connect African diaspora communities in the Twin Cities to employment opportunities and other economic resources. Tasked with helping address transportation challenges, Butler noticed that many of her clients were traveling to work or shop at these retail-type businesses that were overcrowded in buildings clearly meant for office businesses, not beauty salons and barbershops or fashion boutiques.

The full story behind how all these immigrant-owned retail businesses in the Twin Cities ended up in these suburban-style office buildings is unclear. As far as Butler could determine, during the Great Recession a local investor carved out a niche buying up distressed suburban office properties on the cheap after the market crash and renting them out to the only business community desperate for affordable space then: the Twin Cities’ growing immigrant entrepreneur community. It became a blueprint for others to follow.

The number of immigrants in the Twin Cities region increased by 29.1% from 2010 to 2021, now totaling an estimated 377,000 foreign-born residents, or 12% of the region’s overall population. Of that foreign-born population in the Twin Cities, the largest share, about 40%, come from countries in Asia. The second largest share — and fastest growing — at 28%, come from countries in Africa

Study after study continues to show that wherever immigrants go, they create new businesses with new jobs for the local economy. But as Seibure or any of her fellow cooperative members have been saying for years, to each other and to anyone who would listen, the lack of access to space, or to the right kind of space, was holding back their businesses from creating more of those jobs in the Twin Cities.

“There’s a huge disconnect here between our businesses and them being able to access ideal commercial spaces,” says Butler, associate director at ACER.

ACER has responded in multiple ways. It started with providing technical assistance to business owners, assisting them with commercial lease negotiations or enforcing landlord obligations around keeping properties properly maintained in compliance with building codes and other safety standards. Those clients included Seibure’s neighbors in the office building, as well as some Shingle Creek Center tenants who remain in place after the cooperative’s acquisition.

But helping small business owners one-by-one with their landlord situations seemed like a bad song stuck on repeat. Could there be another way?

Collective ownership as a solution

In the municipality of Brooklyn Park, adjacent to Brooklyn Center, ACER supported the local government in acquiring a struggling local strip mall back in 2021. The nonprofit performed a feasibility study to help the Brooklyn Park Economic Development Authority envision how the project could work out as a publicly-owned retail property.

Part of the plan included setting up a small business incubator in the strip mall. “That was the first ideation of this push to have access to affordable retail spaces for small businesses serving this community,” Butler says.

Brooklyn Park also provided grant funding for ACER to explore the potential for community investment trusts or cooperatives as a tool to address both the needs of its small business clients as well as the challenge of what to do with struggling commercial properties after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. If the current owners of these properties couldn’t figure out how to make them work, maybe the small businesses they’d been treating questionably all this time could.

A big part of the challenge is that these strip mall properties weren’t originally designed to be owner-occupied; they were always investor-owned projects rented out to other businesses, from small mom-and-pop shops to national corporate chain stores and big box anchor tenants. Collective ownership was the only way that seemed to make sense for a group of small business owners to acquire one of these properties. While there are other immigrant-centric malls around the Twin Cities, like the famous Karmel Mall serving a largely Somali immigrant community, they still rely on a conventional ownership structure.

“These women came to us and said we want to come together to buy a building and protect us from not having to deal with these types of situations, facing eviction, facing predatory leasing and other bad things that were going on,” Butler says.

Butler joined a cohort led by MercyCorps, which had incubated the East Portland Community Investment Trust as a way for working-class community members to take collective ownership of a strip mall in their neighborhood, buying ownership shares for as little as $10 a month. Since acquiring Plaza 122 in December 2015, the East Portland Community Investment Trust has successfully revitalized the once-struggling strip mall, now typically close to 100% leased out to neighborhood-serving businesses and nonprofits including a beauty salon, immigrant-owned car service, and an assortment of East African cultural organizations. It currently has more than 300 investors from the four zip codes adjacent to Plaza 122, more than 45 of whom have cashed out ownership shares and used funds as down payments on their first homes, bought vehicles, or invested into their own businesses.

In ACER’s own backyard, there was also the NorthEast Investment Cooperative, which formed in 2012 when a group of neighbors in northeast Minneapolis got tired of waiting for developers to figure out what to do with the storefronts on their neighborhood’s main commercial drag.

As challenging as collective ownership models for commercial and other forms of real estate can be, there has been a wave of them emerging in cities across the country, as Next City has been reporting.

At the University of Illinois Chicago, urban planning professor Stacey Sutton has been researching these models and even supporting local efforts around them in Chicago. She sees a spectrum of community ownership models for commercial real estate. At one end are those that are merely about providing opportunities for small dollar investors to invest in nearby commercial properties.

At the other end are more small “d” democratic models building more transparent and collective ways of stewarding or managing properties that have always operated as shared spaces — for commerce, culture or industry — even though they’ve long operated within a conventional private ownership structure. The more these kinds of models at the latter end of the spectrum take hold, the more they might help effect systemic change.

“That prefigurative future that we’re aiming for ideally will not be hierarchical and domineering. Ideally, it will be flatter,” Sutton says. “Most of us, we’re either at the top or the bottom and we don’t see each other as equals. I think that’s the reason it’s worth it to collectively struggle together to build these models. The relationships that they foster are something extremely important in building our civic capacity, our capacity to govern. We don’t have a lot of spaces where that happens, so normalizing that is one of the most challenging things and if not here, then where else?”

Forging a new approach

Neither the East Portland model nor the northeast Minneapolis model was quite what Seibure and her fellow small business owners were looking for — a model for the occupants of retail spaces to own those spaces collectively, leasing them to each other and investing in those spaces together as they saw fit.

With help from Butler, who went through a cooperative developer certification course, they created the structure and bylaws for Ignite Business Women Investment Group, incorporating it as a cooperative in the state of Minnesota and setting up its bank account.

ACER had identified Shingle Creek Center early on as a potential acquisition for the cooperative because Butler had already been supporting several of its tenants with lease negotiations and other issues. They reached out to the previous owner and negotiated a purchase price. At one point a competing offer came in and later fell through. Rising interest rates and continued uncertainty around retail properties in a post-pandemic world have knocked growing numbers of larger commercial real estate investors onto their heels. But Seibure and the other cooperative members never had any doubts.

Banks, on the other hand, had plenty of skepticism. The cooperative members had raised nearly $300,000 for the first acquisition, and ACER put in about $300,000 thanks to a grant from Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development. Additional grant funds were set aside to help with renovations and improvements after acquiring the property.

That left around $4.6 million they still had to raise to acquire Shingle Creek Center.

The first lender that signed on was Shared Capital Cooperative, a Twin Cities-based lender. A cooperative itself, it was founded by a group of cooperatives back in 1978 to provide access to capital for other cooperatives. Today Shared Capital has borrowers across the whole country, but with $25 million in assets, it can only do so much. As a matter of risk management policy, or making sure it doesn’t put too many of its eggs in one basket, Shared Capital currently only makes loans up to $1.2 million — which is what it offered to lend ACER and the Ignite Business Women Investment Group.

That left $3.4 million more to raise. The cooperative members started with the obvious, calling all the banks where they’d kept their own small business accounts for years. Seibure always kept a minimum of $10,000 deposited in her business’s bank account, she says, yet her bank wasn’t interested. Even the cooperative’s bank wasn’t interested.

“They didn’t understand what we were doing as a cooperative,” Seibure says. “And being Black businesses, immigrant businesses, women businesses, they didn’t really want to know. They kept rejecting our requests, even the very place where we were keeping our money. Can you imagine, they’re holding our $250,000 and they don’t want to hear our story?”

Some of the mainstream commercial banks asked for personal financials from Seibure and other board officers of the cooperative. It’s a common practice in conventional commercial real estate lending, but not something that made sense within the context of collective ownership. None of the members were in any position to be on the hook to have personal assets seized in case of default on a $3.4 million loan.

Seibure says it was probably Shared Capital who first made an introduction to Sunrise Banks, a community bank based in the Twin Cities. Both are community development financial institutions, or CDFIs, which are certified by the U.S. Treasury Department to have a primary mission of community development. As such, Sunrise is supposed to work on deals that other banks won’t.

The Shingle Creek Center deal was right in the bank’s wheelhouse, says Mary Stoick, senior vice president at Sunrise.

As with a typical commercial real estate deal, the first and heaviest-weighted factor is how much cash flow the project will generate and how much of it is available to cover monthly loan payments on top of existing expenses, including taxes, insurance, property management and other administrative expenses. Even at current interest rates, the property had the cash flow to cover all of its $4.6 million in projected debt, between 14 existing tenants at Shingle Creek Center and dozens of cooperative members itching to move into its four vacant storefronts. ACER itself is even going to rent one of those vacant storefronts for a new business incubator.

Cash flow was never the issue for Shingle Creek Center’s new owners. It came down largely to the fact that neither ACER nor the cooperative members had any experience owning and managing a property on this scale. That, combined with the unusual cooperative ownership structure, was just too much novelty for most banks to stomach.

But Stoick, who left the mainstream banking world to work at Sunrise, was convinced otherwise, especially since conventional owners were struggling to figure out what to do with these strip malls anyhow. Instead of being a risk, the cooperative’s story and its members became mitigating factors for Sunrise Banks, which ultimately made a $3.4 million loan needed for the cooperative’s first acquisition.

“I honestly think that one of the biggest barriers for more conventional banks is that you have to think harder about cooperative ownership. You have to work harder to explain what the concept is, to understand how it’s structured, to identify some of the possible risks, but also identify what are the mitigating factors,” Stoick says. “Those same business owners got creative in coming up with their cooperative model — they’re gonna get creative on something else too, right? They’re going to open up a mixed concept that has never been seen before, and it takes off or ends up filling a niche or a need that their community needed that others didn’t see.”

The cooperative now owns a 51% share of the strip mall, while ACER owns the other 49%. Butler is laying the groundwork to sell the ACER’s share to community members using the community investment trust model from Portland.

As challenging as its first acquisition was, Seibure believes it will be just the first of many for Ignite Business Women Investment Group. Now that they’ve been through the process once, they can take everything they’ve learned and go through it again and again. They expect it will get easier with each property they add to their portfolio.

After years of virtual meetings, members met in person for the very first time in December 2022 — at Jambo Africa, a Brooklyn Center restaurant whose owner is part of the cooperative, of course.

“I say thanks to the ladies for really having the confidence in us, because some of them we didn’t even meet in person until after two years,” Seibure says.

“God is good. When something is ready to happen you’d be surprised, it happens in a mysterious way. These people were depositing the money at the bank, some of them even cash…But you just take a picture and send us the receipt.”

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Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.

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