Jessica (Blanner) Welk – Schafer Richardson
It’s the ideal role for her, Jessica (Blanner) Welk says as she nears her first anniversary as general counsel for Schafer Richardson, a full-service real estate investment, development, construction and management services company in the Twin Cities. Her goals, she says, mirror that of a company that invests in its people as well as its projects in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska.
“I don’t mind being in the legal hot seat because I’m comfortable connecting with people,” she says. “This is a role where, as a business partner, I get to work across so many different departments and externally as well.”
When Vanguard caught up with her in May, she was working as such, her agenda including the transactional details necessary to advance a couple new developments in Lake Elmo near the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.
Just east of Saint Paul, the Hendrix project will bring 190 market-rate apartment units. In Rosemount, on the southern edge of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area, Schafer Richardson envisions a more complex project: the market-rate 141-unit Copper at Rosecott, and an adjacent affordable 164-unit Croft at Rosecott.
Each project has lots of moving pieces, explains Welk, who describes her biggest challenge being working in conjunction with the business and development teams in securing equity to finance the projects. She does all the documentation while others chase down parties willing to invest. While there’s always risk in a big-ticket investment, she’s among those gauging to what extent Schafer Richardson can go—she says the business model has repeatedly been vindicated.
Schafer Richardson seeks to utilize tax increment financing for the Rosemount projects. That can be a burdensome process, Welk says, in which a local government issues bonds backed by a percentage of projected tax collections resulting from increased property values or ensuring business activity within a designed area.
Welk keeps her eye on the prize and, if need be, enlists outside counsel to help iron out the complexities. At least everyone’s on the same page in one respect.
“There’s such a shortage of rental properties,” she says from Minneapolis headquarters. “There’s this pent-up demand from the last few years and it’s growing.”
Winning through teamwork
There’s also much happening on the commercial and industrial fronts, some of which represent a new realm for Welk. On the REIT side of the business, an entity related to SR Realty Trust Inc., recently acquired a distribution center and warehouse in Eagan, Minnesota, and, with Welk’s assistance, has leased it back to the tenant.
While Welk’s background has mostly been in multifamily properties, she welcomes the opportunity to increase her skillset through the guidance of colleagues and is responding in kind.
“Learning from each other and growing as professionals is a big part of the Schafer Richardson culture,” she says. “There’s always an opportunity here to help others internally just as much as the work we do helps others in the communities we’re serving.”
Fostering relationships goes a long way with colleagues and outsiders alike, she goes on to say. Facilitating communications across the firm’s departments is a skill she’s leaned into, and how this wins confidence from stakeholders who, in turn, enable Shafer Richardson to construct more housing. She’s just as open and transparent on community engagement and collaborating with municipal boards.
At home in-house
So, it’s been an eventful near-year for Welk, who joined Schafer Richardson in September after a five-year stretch as senior assistant general counsel at Sherman Associates, another Minneapolis-based property developer. There’s always been something she’s enjoyed about real estate law and how much more satisfying Welk finds it to do in-house.
“I knew from the start that was where I wanted to be,” she says. “I love working from the inside, seeing all lines of the business and working with colleagues from all departments.”
Minnesota-born, she left her home state in 2002 for Vermont’s Middlebury College, where Welk earned degrees in psychology, history and political science, and swam with the varsity team. Following her 2006 graduation, Welk returned to Minneapolis to enroll at University of St. Thomas School of Law, where she earned her juris doctor three years later.
An externship in 2008 with the corporate counsel at Best Buy whetted her desire to go in-house but, like most lawyers, she still had to hone her skills in private practice. She was an associate at three Twin Cities firms from 2009 to 2017 and credits all for prepping her for the comprehensive responsibilities at Schafer Richardson.
“I’m now in a role where, as a business partner, I get to work across so many different departments and externally as well,” Welk says. “I’m supporting the entire company full-time, not just on a single department or single transaction.”
Whatever Welk can’t handle as general counsel gets outsourced to select firms such as Winthrop & Weinstine, whose expertise she says has been most valuable when assembling affordable-housing projects.
And the need persists, the Star Tribune newspaper recently identifying a 100,000-unit shortage for low-income Minnesotans. Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska also have needs that are especially challenging for marginalized communities, and Welk’s proud that Schafer Richardson is part of the solution.
“It’s thrilling to see the ground breaking after you work so hard on these projects,” she says. “But we’ve got a great team with the synergies to make it all possible and to affect communities for the better.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Summer III 2023 Edition here.
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