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The Demise Of St. Paul’s Urban League & Its Uncertain Future

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(credit: CBS) Liz Collin
At 15 years old, Liz Collin made her broadcast debut covering...
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The Urban League has existed across the country for more than 100 years.

It’s a civil rights organization dedicated to economic empowerment in under-served urban communities. The headquarters for the St Paul branch has been vacant for months, and the building has fallen into disrepair. It has also gone into foreclosure, WCCO-TV has learned.

On Monday, lawyers were in Ramsey County Court trying to figure out what’s next for the future of the St. Paul Urban League.

“How do you build something for 85 years and it gets destroyed in less than a year?” said Robert McClain, a former staff member.

McClain worked in the building, which sits on Selby Avenue, for three years and was one of the last staff members to be let go. But he’s been a volunteer and supporter for 25 years, and like so many in the community, he doesn’t want to see it die.

Longtime Urban League supporters, Willie Mae and Bill Wilson, are trying to stop the sale of the building. They blame the demise of the Urban League on its most recent director, Scott Selmer.

But Selmer says the St. Paul branch wasn’t given the opportunity to turn things around.

“So we were trying to do what we could as rapidly as we could,” Selmer said. “But it was a situation that was almost impossible to do…we just weren’t allowed the opportunity.”

WCCO obtained an audit by the National Urban League expressing concern. A 2004 budget of $1. 7 million dwindled to one of $650,000 three years later.

But during those years, the economy was hitting everyone hard, especially nonprofits. And a shake-up in the Urban League’s board brought in Selmer to make some changes.

“Our goal was to become a independent agency,” he said.

When the United Way stopped funding the organization, Selmer brought in a new staff to begin thinking big.

“We wanted to be in a position that we could actually purchase businesses and give employment and create programs with our own funds,” Selmer said. “And we thought the best way to do that would be if we could purchase maybe a car wash or a McDonald’s or something where we’d have a profit arm that would feed the nonprofit arm on the services and thereby we would become self-sufficient.”

But that didn’t happen. And a $400,000 budget is gone. Selmer says the money went to pay for staff. But there are no financial reports filed with the Minnesota Attorney General since 2009. And the building went into foreclosure after plans to sell it fell through.

“I think that we probably should have tried to maybe sell the building sooner,” Selmer said.

Selmer is no longer the director. And even though records show his salary was $37,000; Selmer says he’s still owed that money.

“In essence…we weren’t getting paid,” Selmer said. “So, essentially I was a volunteer.”

Urban League members hope talks between lawyers on both sides will help get the organization back on track.

WCCO-TV’s Liz Collin asked McClain, the former staff member, if St. Paul’s Urban League is dead?

“I would say St. Paul Urban League is in a coma,” McClain said. “So, it’s not dead, it just appears dead.”

Urban League members have petitioned Attorney General Lori Swanson to look into possible criminal activity.

A civil case is likely to go to trial soon.

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