Partner Profile: Lake Street Council

Fashions change, but the Lake Street Council has endured as an advocate for local small business.

Founded in 1967 to stem the flight of established businesses from Lake Street, the Lake Street Council, the perennial business booster, is now positioning itself to help steer the planned revitalization headed for South Minneapolis.

Redevelopment of the Sears building at Chicago and Lake, expansion of transit service and freeway access, reconstruction of the Lake Street roadway and the continuing development of the Midtown Greenway are all slated to occur along Lake Street in the coming years. Close coordination between government and the large corporate interests of South Minneapolis has in large part delivered these whopping infrastructure investments. But what sparked the urgency around the timing of these plans was the flowering of immigrant small business in the storefronts Lake Street, a boon the Lake Street Council has had been influential in supporting. As the full-scale redevelopment draws ever nearer, its prime movers have recognized the value of the Lake Street Council’s connections to the “street” of Lake Street. 

The Lake Street Council has been at the table for years alongside neighborhood associations in advising the plans for these projects, but more recently has has expanded its interest in policy issues, said Julie Ingebretsen, president of the Lake Street Council’s board.

“We used to focus almost exclusively on membership services,” said Ingebretsen. ”Now the trend is toward the health of the whole Lake Street community.”

Last year the Lake Street Council participated in a major quality-of-life initiative focused on the Chicago-Lake commercial node.

“The success of the Chicago-Lake intervention is the success of the business community uniting to protect their turf from street crime and blight,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. “The Lake Street Council proved indispensable to our getting the intersection cleaned up.”

Deep Roots

The Greater Lake Street Council was formed in 1967 by “big hitters” on Lake Street, said Ted Muller, the organization’s executive director. These included Honeywell, US Bank and Norwest Bank, but most original members were car dealerships. Like the local business community, the organization’s membership has diversified over the years, embracing an increasing number of immigrant entrepreneurs and types of businesses. “Greater” was eventually dropped from the organization’s name.

Most of the other business associations along the corridor originated from within the Lake Street Council’s membership. The Lake Street Council has maintained a close relationship with the organizations representing the eight Lake Street commercial nodes, serving as an umbrella organization for all member businesses from 26th to 32nd Streets between Lake Calhoun and the Mississippi River.

The Lake Street Council’s fortunes rose and fell over the years, mostly, Muller said, on the shoulders of the executive director serving at the time. Some were part-timers. Others poured everything they had into the effort. Through all the ups and downs, the organization has remained credible in the local business community by offering a range of services that seem to belie its low operating budget—currently $75,000—and its one staff member, Muller. 

These programs—Paint & Fix, Employment Skills Training and pro bono business legal services—make the Lake Street Council a sought-out resource, especially among startups. “We help people cut through the red tape, especially the city bureaucracy— licensing, zoning, inspections,” said Muller.

Muller also describes a legacy factor in the organization’s membership. “People know us because we’ve been around so long,” he said. “Many second-generation business owners grew up going to our meetings and events as kids.”

Branching Out

In his five years as executive director, Muller has been busy putting the infrastructure in place to build membership and expand the organization’s mission from member support to marketing, and from keeping decay in check to embracing revitalization. 

“We’re rolling out a new slogan, ‘Travel Lake Street’,” he said. “We want to market Lake Street as a place to come, shop, live and work.” Even so, said Muller, “you can’t market Lake Street successfully until you get the rudimentary things cleaned up—trash, graffiti, crime, prostitution. This was true in 1967 and remains the case today.” 

Muller and Ingebretsen say that positioning the organization to shape policy around the redevelopment of the Lake Street corridor will only enhance its voice in the region’s business community.

“We would like to become the Chamber of Commerce for Lake Street,” said Muller.