CEZ Happy Hour celebrates a “chamber of dreams come true”

Where proximal things explode into awesome. That’s how Chris Pennington described the synergies at 755 North Prior Avenue, where a dozen new ventures have set up shop since Pennington and partners launched Can Can Wonderland there last spring.

And that goes for the Creative Enterprise Zone as a whole, too. On November 8, some 80 people gathered for a CEZ Happy Hour. The venue this time: the soaring atrium of University Enterprise Labs on Westgate—another kind of maker space, where life scientists find a collaborative setting for tackling human problems. Like what? “A vaccine for malaria,” said UEL host Lynne Osterman. “Now that takes creativity.” After quenching our thirst with some luscious Black Stack brews, we heard from several CEZ-based entrepreneurs in a panel emceed by Pennington.

At the St. Paul Neighborhood Network, Bianca Rhodes and Aaron Price are building community through media. Both producers have a hand in Candy Fresh, a monthly multi-arts music and dance party that gives youth a chance to feel the power of a platform for expression (photo above, photo by Bill Mitchell Imagery). From its studios at Vandalia Tower, the nonprofit SPNN also offers classes and programs that help bridge the digital divide.

Landbridge Ecological restores native landscapes and habitat, from wetlands and prairies to residential rain gardens. Owners Carrie Ann and Tory Christensen are now moving the company from Seward to the CEZ, changing its name from Wetland Habitat Restorations in the process. Landbridge’s staff of 25 holds certification in LEED, permaculture, agroecology and other ecological practices. They work year-round on landscape design and installation for clients including the DNR and watershed districts.

Coffee and beer: it pays to educate your palate for both. Back at 755 North Prior, Murphy Johnson of Black Stack Brewing often strolls down the hall to share tasting opinions with Bruce Olson of True Stone Coffee Roasters. A 2003 startup, True Stone now employs 10 people and offers training to coffee professionals. Its signature blend has “earthy fruits and a hint of smoke.” Meanwhile, Black Stack’s Ratify beer is brewed with coriander and orange peel for "rich body and touch of spice.” Black Stack is a new—and booming—family business with 7 full-time employees and a bar staff of 21.

And those job numbers are important, added Catherine Day, CEZ board chair. 755 North Prior has a growing presence as an employer: Can Can alone employs about 70. Impressive, given that it was vacant for a decade until this year. And since light industrial zones are key to St. Paul’s tax base, these small but dynamic ventures truly serve as a creative engine for the city’s economy.

What else can be found at 755? Pennington named a few attractions: Teardrop trailers. African spices. A sculpture studio. Landscape services. A guy who makes hand-carved fishing lures for muskies. Theater Mu. The St. Paul branch of the Minnesota Tool Library. “We sound like a chamber of commerce,” he mused aloud. A voice from the crowd chimed in, “A chamber of dreams come true.”

Watch for more CEZ Happy Hours in 2018.

Julie James