Sharing the Light at the Opportunity Center

Three months after its grand opening, the Cedar Riverside Opportunity Center is blooming. The Center has already welcomed over a thousand visitors. Over four hundred individuals have completed a formal intake process; 34 have already found employment; and 12 have enrolled at MCTC. Fifteen employers, including Fairview and Hennepin County, are now engaged in recruiting from the Center.

While there are many factors contributing to this intense interest, one key factor is the Center’s location and physical design. Across from the Brian Coyle Center in the heart of Cedar Riverside, the Center’s street level presence and open glass architecture reflect strong design intention. Community voices, including East African elders, urged that the Center be a welcoming and transparent space for the Cedar Riverside community.

The Opportunity Center offers the surrounding community a space to connect residents to employment opportunities and educational resources, presenting a new model for workforce centers. Mohamed Ali, Associate Director of the Center and Program Manager at EMERGE, and Kevin Busch, Architect of the Center and owner of Busch Architects, Inc., sat down to discuss the development and physical design elements of the Center.

“A big part of the design was keeping everything open so that people can see there are things going on here and that they are good things,” Busch commented. “It's saying, ‘Hey, this is really a great place to come and get a good job.’”

The Development of the Center


The Cedar Riverside Partnership started a conversation about an opportunity center to integrate employment, education, and library resources in a new and accessible way that is open to all in Cedar Riverside but with a special focus on East African youth and young adults.  After studying several potential locations, the new construction at 515 Fifteenth Avenue South presented an opportunity to design and build the center in a great new location. “EMERGE has a long history in Cedar Riverside,” explained Ali. “We were very pleased to be invited as one of the anchor partners.” The Cedar Riverside Partnership then led a successful fundraising campaign with key funding commitments from the McKnight Foundation, Pohlad Family Foundation, Otto Bremer Trust, Minneapolis Foundation, Pat and Tom Grossman Fund of the Minnesota Community Foundation, Mortenson Foundation, Hennepin County, and the City of Minneapolis.

Busch’s small business enterprise, located in downtown Minneapolis, won the project through the Hennepin County selection process. Busch Architects, Inc., started working on the design in June 2016. “Hennepin County kept everything organized and we began to meet with Mohamed, others from the county, EMERGE and MCTC,” said Busch. Busch and his team developed a schematic design by the end of July and started construction drawings in September and in October, project contractor Jaeger Construction was hired.

Initially, the Center had four design layouts. The open glass design was unanimously agreed upon. “East African culture is very visual,” Ali explained. “If we had walls, people would never know what's going on in here. But now they will know.” Busch added, “We wanted to expose what's happening here by having the transparency of the glass. That's why this room and the interview rooms have glass walls, so people can see what's happening in here and see that good things are happening, people are being served.”

From there, it was a quick turnaround. Construction began in November 2016 and the grand opening took place in March 2017. The overall process, including the discussion, design, and construction, took place over two and a half years. “The process was heavily influenced by community partners - Augsburg College, University of Minnesota, Hennepin County, City of Minneapolis, Busch and his team, and many others,” Ali said. “If you calculate the hours those people spent, this project is worth millions of dollars.”

Enlightened by Community Elders

Before staff moved in, two significant events were held at the Center. One was the naming of the rooms. “This community room was named after Ahmed Keynan, a community elder who opened the first business on Cedar Avenue,” Ali said. “We invited the families and ended up with 150 people - we were not expecting that! It was a huge success and the community feels some type of ownership because leaders were named in this space. People see this space as theirs.”

One of the most unique design elements of the Center is the addition of foot washing stations in two of the bathrooms. Community members use the stations in preparation for prayer. Following discussion over which kind of faucet to use, the Center ended up selecting a simple faucet accessible for users of all ages. “You can't find these in other public spaces, other than mosques,” Ali stated.

“We also have a prayer room that operates as a mother’s room,” Busch continued. Ali pointed out that it’s the only space in the whole neighborhood where community members have that kind of privacy, other than their own home.

These special features were informed by community elders. “That's how we came up with the idea for the foot washing stations and space for mothers,” Ali said. “We have books for kids to read and cultural artifacts on the walls. There are activities for community elders and their children, so people feel more welcome.”

A High-Tech Environment

The designers wanted to imbue the space with a high-tech feel. This is evidenced by the laptops that are available to use anytime, the workstation where people can plug in their devices and get connected, and password-free Wi-Fi provided by Hennepin County. “There’s going to be an 8-foot screen here in the community room and screens in each interview room that people can use for training, recruiting, and other things,” Busch explained. There are also plans to install a television screen that community members will see when they walk in the door. The screen will present the daily and weekly activities happening at the Center.

The Opportunity Center serves a wide range of ages, from adolescence to adulthood. “I think the use of technology attracts the younger age groups and the prayer and mother's room attracts the elders,” Busch commented. “It helps that there's a community room that can be used by everybody at various times, even if teenagers want to drop in after school or something like that and they want to hang out here.”

Sharing Light & Opportunities

Mike Christenson, Hennepin County Workforce Development Director, helped to articulate the design. The idea was to make the Center feel comfortable for both corporate employers and community residents. “We were trying to merge the two together,” Busch said. “The glass element is from the corporate side of things, trying to make it open and give people the idea that these are big businesses they could get hired at.”

And this special attention to the environment seems already to be paying off. “We are particularly grateful to employers like Fairview who have come here to help candidates prepare in addition to interviewing them for positions,” explained Christenson. “These anchor employers have played crucial roles in making this experiment evolve into a continually improving model of service delivery.”

The open design also allows staff and community members to share the light during the day. “The staff that sit in the cubicles get to share most of the light,” Busch said. That was an aspect of how we laid out this space. We put a little break room on the end and it’s just perfect. It has glass all around so it’s a nice place to sit. It never feels dark in here.”

Busch explained that one of the other design concepts is to think of the Center as an oasis; the idea that people could come here to fulfill many needs. “You’ve got college, employment, library, and other service information - all of that in one building is very unique,” Ali added.

Looking forward, one of the biggest challenges facing the Center is parking. “It’s hard for people who just want to stop in quickly,” Ali said. Fortunately, the location is conveniently accessible from the light rail for both the Blue and Green Line.

A Community-Backed Center

Ali and Busch reflected on their favorite parts of the two and a half year project. “My favorite part was the quickness from the beginning to end,” Ali said. “The construction was quick and we were able to come in to take photos, take a tour, and it’s just beautiful.” “My favorite part was the groundbreaking,” commented Busch. “There were like 300 people that came to see the start of the construction. And the grand opening was just packed.”

The Cedar Riverside community has come together to embrace the Opportunity Center. “The most exciting thing for me was how many people got behind the project, from the county, politicians, community, and everyone who was just excited about getting this going and making this work,” Busch said.