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Blandin under fire
How much money should the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation spend outside its home city? A Ramsey County probate judge is consider arguments from some residents that the foundation's practice of giving grants statewide is against its founder's wishes.

Grand Rapids, Minn. — Charles K. Blandin founded The Blandin Trust and Blandin Foundation in 1941. He was the longtime owner of Grand Rapid's Blandin Paper Co. When Blandin died in 1958, his will directed the foundation to distribute a portion of his estate each year to the benefit of Grand Rapids and vicinity.

Today, the Blandin Foundation is Minnesota's largest rural-based foundation. Its trust is worth more than $300 million. The Blandin Trust sold the paper company in 1977, and the proceeds added another $80 million to the trust.

Soon after, the Blandin Foundation began to reshape the grantmaker's focus. Instead of concentrating solely on Grand Rapids and Itasca County, it began supporting rural causes across Minnesota.

The Blandin Foundation is a financial supporter of Minnesota Public Radio's Mainstreet Unit.

The foundation sought and received permission for its statewide focus from Ramsey County Probate Court in 1990. But a group of citizens challenged that redirection 10 years later.

Attorney Kent Harbison says the foundation was not following its founder's wishes.

"In Mr. Blandin's will, he directed pretty explicitly that all of the trust income from the trust he established, be distributed for the benefit of the Grand Rapids vicinity," Harbison says.

Harbison represents individuals affiliated with the Grand Rapids group Citizens For Blandin, which objects to the foundation's statewide giving. Harbison and his law partner, Keith Libbey, reached agreement with the foundation three years ago in Ramsey County Probate Court. That agreement states the foundation will distribute money primarily to Grand Rapids, but continue funding other rural causes as well.

Harbison says the Blandin Foundation has not yet lived up to that agreement.

"There might be a makeup of the Blandin board -- 10, 20, 50 years from now -- who would look at this totally differently and say, 'Well, we don't need to give much of anything at all to the Grand Rapids vicinity,'" Harbison says. "So we wanted to put some protections in place to see that that doesn't happen."

Harbison will ask the court to direct an additional $5 million towards Grand Rapids as compensation for the last three years' grant-making pattern.

But the Blandin Foundation is confident it has complied. Eugene Radecki, Blandin's interim president, says financial information presented by the objectors does not reflect the full impact of Blandin's activities on the Grand Rapids area. And he says the foundation's shift to a statewide focus is supported by the record left by Charles Blandin.

"The board believes that it's following Mr. Blandin's intent," Radecki says. "The interpretation of whether or not we're living up to that responsibility is a matter of interpretation, which the board interprets one way I am sure, and the community, obviously, is interpreting another way."

Foundations do seek redirection, but they don't always get it. The San Francisco Foundation is one example.

In the 1980s, that foundation tried to broaden the scope of its multi-million dollar Buck Trust. It wanted to spread money beyond the trust's original target -- California's Marin County. But Marin County and some agencies objected, and won. As a result, the Buck Trust was separated from The San Francisco Foundation.

Attorney Kent Harbison says he might ask the court to consider a major reversal of Blandin's grant pattern.

"We might be able to present evidence and arguments as to why the original language of Mr. Blandin's will ought to be followed," Harbison says. "And that would result in 100 percent of the trust income going to the benefit of the Grand Rapids area."

Wednesday's hearing is expected to determine if there's any merit to the Citizens For Blandin objection. If the judge determines there is merit, another hearing could be scheduled at a later date.

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