Highland Popcorn scrambles for new space after St. Paul location falls through

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A small business in St. Paul was set to open this summer looking to employ people with disabilities, but plans changed following a University of St. Thomas decision.

The University of St. Thomas provided the company Highland Popcorn with free space on campus to operate its business. At the end of February, the university notified the company the area was no longer available.

Shamus O’Meara, Highland Popcorn president, calls the situation “devastating.”

“To people with intellectual developmental disabilities, a job is life-changing,” O’Meara said.

O’Meara made it his mission to create spaces for people with disabilities to thrive.

“These opportunities are really tough to come by,” he said.

So he created a new opportunity called “Highland Popcorn.”

It’s a business that employs people with disabilities as they work side-by-side with the community.

Connor O’Meara, Shamus’ son, was supposed to be one of the workers.

“I want to represent people with disabilities, and I want to be a leader of them and be an example, and maybe they’ll say ‘hey, maybe I can do what he does someday,'” Connor said.

Shamus partnered up with the University of St. Thomas in December 2019 to help make this vision a reality.

The university offered one of its spaces on the St. Paul campus rent-free.

Shamus said a Mar. 1, 2022, on-site meeting was scheduled with the university to discuss the next steps.

But four days prior, things changed.

“We received a single email that said they weren’t moving forward and that just blew me away,” Shamus said.

Shamus added they lost thousands of dollars and hours after the change in the agreement.

University of St. Thomas officials said they support the business plan, but between COVID-19 and other activities on campus, they can no longer offer the St. Paul campus space.

“We greatly respect the leader of Highland Popcorn, his passion and his energy for a very worthy and important mission,” Mark Vangsgard, University of St. Thomas chief financial officer, said.

Vangsgard said they offered Shamus an alternative option, but he declined.

“I would hope that he would not lose sight of the fact that we certainly have an opportunity for him on our Minneapolis campus, and we’d love to continue conversations with him,” Vangsgard said.

Shamus said he initially declined the Minneapolis location idea back in 2020, citing transportation challenges, expensive costs, and safety concerns.

The business owner said they are searching for new partnerships in the Twin Cities to try and get this idea back off the ground.