A Pioneer in Environmental Leadership is Forced to Power Down

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August 5, 2011; Source: StarTribune | A nonprofit that served as an environmental symbol for green energy innovations is closing its doors. The firing of its executive director and subsequent analysis of finances is raising questions over its future.

The Green Institute, a Minnesota leader in “green economy” was shuttered this week. The firing of its executive director over a year ago led to a report that financial problems were too deep to overcome. Several employees were laid off and programs were closed. Organizational leaders and the fired director disagree on reasons for both the termination and current financial issues.

The institute was started in the 80’s in a poor Minneapolis neighborhood where the county wanted to construct a garbage waste station. It soon became a visible environmental leader, constructing its own building with passive solar energy and a green roof. It also collaborated to expand recycling programs, develop new products from recyclables, and pioneer several used building material and energy conservation programs.

Jim Heipel was hired in 2003 and successfully led two businesses within the organization. He was promoted to Executive Director in 2006 when the agency was already struggling. Heipel sold property to pay off a $4.8 million mortgage debt.

He was dismissed in 2010 by the board. An examination of the books a year later revealed deep financial problems. Heipel claimed he was terminated due to disagreements with board leadership, which refuses to discuss the personnel issue.

The 2009 financial statements showed a surplus of $750,000 on revenue of $1.6 million. Some of the revenue came from a $5.2 million gain on selling its flagship building and paying down the debt. It hasn’t filed a 2010 return yet.

Leaders are confident that there is strong nucleus of supporters and energy for the institute and its mission. They hope to turn the lights back on and return to their message of recycle, reuse and reduce.– Nancy Knoche