University pulls the plug on small business 

University pulls the plug on small business 

by Jane McClure 

A small business employing young people with disabilities, which was poised to launch this summer, faces an uncertain future with the loss of its proposed space. Highland Popcorn was set to announce a partnership with University of St. Thomas in St. Paul to use part of a campus building for its program. 

But after working with UST officials since fall 2019, Highland Popcorn was informed in late February that the business relationship was terminated. Efforts to have UST officials reconsider or meet with Highland Popcorn supporters have been turned down. Supporters now must look for another space after spending thousands of private dollars and thousands of hours of time. No public funding is being used.

The space Highland Popcorn planned to use is in the Binz Refectory, in the far southwest corner of the campus. Binz was a major campus events center for many years before a new student center was built on the north campus. 

UST issued a brief statement about the canceled agreement. “The university thinks very highly of Highland Popcorn’s mission and had multiple conversations with the organization about options for potential spaces. Ultimately, St. Thomas determined it did not have the resources on the St. Paul campus to adequately support Highland Popcorn’s needs, and we notified the organization we could not proceed with an agreement,” said Andy Ybarra, associate vice president of public relations and communications. 

Highland resident Shamus O’Meara has led efforts to launch Highland Popcorn. He called the decision to pull the plug on the venture “devastating.” Highland Popcorn had already faced delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and turnover of UST staff. But O’Meara had signed the latest agreement for the space in late February. The most recent agreement had the venture starting June 1. 

O’Meara was to meet with St. Thomas officials March 1 to discuss the plans. But a February 25 email from Pamela Peterson, associate vice president for auxiliary services, quashed the idea. 

“I am reaching out to you today to let you know that after much discussion this week with key leaders at the university, a decision has been made to no longer move forward with a license agreement with Highland Popcorn” Peterson said. “In part, many of the university’s priorities have shifted from where we were more than a year plus ago when conversations regarding this potential license agreement first started. Revised strategic priorities we now have in place, ongoing staffing issues, space needs and budget challenges have guided the decision to no longer move forward with this agreement.” 

Peterson went on to say that she understands the “disappointment” Highland Popcorn supporters face. but that the license agreement is no longer viable. 

O’Meara, whose young adult son Conor has autism, was shocked by the decision. “This is an unbelievable situation,” he said. “No other college or business would do this to its partners especially after two years of work together. We’ve tried repeatedly to meet with the president but received no response from her office, or from the interim president or board of trustees. St. Thomas didn’t even bother calling about its shocking decision, made without any notice, just a single email after two years with everything set to go … None of this is Catholic or remotely close to the university’s mission of advancing the common good.” 

St. Paul-based disability service provider MSS is the partner with Highland Popcorn, helping to identify and support job candidates. “This would be a great opportunity for people to try out and learn a wide range of job skills,” said Julie Johnson, MSS president. “It would have been an amazing opportunity for us.” 

She hopes Highland Popcorn can find another site. 

The loss of space sets back the plan to provide jobs for young people with disabilities, said O’Meara. “Business partnerships are not started by flipping a switch. They are formed and strengthened by mutual interaction, expectations and reliance over time. Despite this St. Thomas chose to reject individuals with developmental disabilities working side by side with students and peers in a supported and enjoyable business on the St. Paul campus. For many this would have been their first real job— with opportunities to develop friendships and life skills together with others in the university and local community.” 

Highland Popcorn has enjoyed support from UST alumni, said O’Meara. One of those supporters is Jack Abdo, UST alumnus and CPA who has worked on the business plans. 

“I was surprised and really disappointed by St. Thomas’ decision,” Abdo said. 

Another person expressing disappointment is St. Paul City Council Member Chris Tolbert. “The university’s decision is really unfortunate,” he said. “I am hoping Highland Popcorn can find another space. I think this is a great business idea, and its supporters have worked very hard to make it happen.” 

What really disappoints supporters is that St. Thomas told them that Highland Popcorn was a great fit with its mission. O’Meara noted that almost everyone either has a family member, relative or knows someone with a disability. For many people with disabilities, the chance to have a job is “life-changing” and allows people to pursue their independence, productivity and self-determination by contributing and participating as a working community member. 

O’Meara and Abdo said the team behind Highland Popcorn will seek another site. “We are extremely proud to be part of a dynamic team providing life changing opportunities for a remarkably qualified workforce within our community where 95 percent of working age individuals with autism are unemployed,” O’Meara said. “While we are disappointed with the St. Thomas decision we will continue efforts to open this business within St. Paul where it belongs, where individuals with developmental disabilities will be respected and supported.”