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Challenges threaten Minneapolis-St. Paul’s image as a livable place

We are grappling with longstanding problems, such as the coldest winters of any major American city and the widespread perception that we are located in the middle of nowhere.

This is the second of two stories exploring strategies for ensuring the continuing vitality of the Minneapolis-St. Paul region. They are adapted from a report for the McKnight Foundation’s Food for Thought series by local author Jay Walljasper. The first story, “Minneapolis-St. Paul’s identity crisis could mean trouble for our future,” examined how little people outside Minnesota know about the region. 

Minneapolis-St. Paul can no longer rest its laurels as one of America’s most livable places lauded by magazines back in the 1970s. In an era of accelerating social and economic change, we must double down our efforts to remain an attractive place to live, work and do business.

We are grappling with longstanding problems, such as the coldest winters of any major American city and the widespread perception that we are located in the middle of nowhere, as well as new threats like a widening achievement gap between whites and people of color. Well-established companies can fly off to Atlanta or San Francisco (as happened with Northwest Airlines and Norwest Bank) and young talent may never even glance at us as they speed in the direction of Brooklyn or Portland or Shanghai.

Even our most cherished asset — “a great place to raise a family” — is being undercut by places we once joked about: Omaha, Des Moines, Madison, and other small metros around the country that enjoy booming economies and rising urban sophistication. David Feehan, who until recently headed the International Downtown Association, says, “Minneapolis-St. Paul has not been getting better at the same rate as these places.”

Here is a sober look at looming problems (some painfully real, others common misperceptions) that threaten our identity as a prosperous, vital, equitable place — as well as practical thoughts on how to overcome them. 

The stubborn achievement gap

First and foremost among our problems is the stark, unyiedling fact that the “good life” in MSP is not shared by everyone who lives here. Low-income communities, particularly people of color, are falling dangerously behind when it comes to income, education and home ownership. A sense that “we’re all in this together” has historically been one of our cultural strengths compared to the rest of the country, but now we rank near the bottom on many measures of economic and educational equity.

The reputation of our “brainpower” work force looks questionable when minorities (who are estimated to be 43 percent of the MSP population in 2040) perform significantly less well in school than white students. This worries Citistates Group president and former Metropolitan Council chair Curtis Johnson, who notes, “Our comparative advantage has always been a higher percentage of educated people.”

Minnesota Nice: Not-so-nice for minorities

Our long pride in being a liberal, open-minded place vanishes after hearing people of color speak honestly about their experiences living here.

“This is an hospitable place on the surface,” says Dave Ellis who moved to town in 1974 after college and worked for Dow Chemical, the Minnesota Department of Corrections and the United Way. “But it’s hard to be your full self here. Telling my story is very important to me, but to the dominant culture it sounds like anger and rage. I’ve learned to be hyper-vigilant in social settings, and after a while you don’t want to participate any more.” He now runs Three E Consulting and convenes discussions about race and culture across the state.

Many corporate recruiters admit that non-white professionals are reluctant to move to MSP. “They see barriers to moving up in their career,” explains DeAnna Cummings, executive director of Juxtaposition Arts in North Minneapolis. “There are few examples of African-Americans or others in positions of power.” Erik Takeshita, deputy director of the Local Initiative Support Corporation-Twin Cities, acknowledges, “There is a growing diversity here, there’s still a lot of pressure to assimilate. Other cities do a better job of letting you be who you are.”

Vanilla City, USA

In the eyes of many, we are an out-of-the-way city populated exclusively by blond-haired folks who eat spongy white bread and say “you betcha.” That’s not going to stir much excitement for an emerging generation raised on rap, dim sum and a desire for diversity.

Of course, that perception is as outdated as Lou Grant’s wardrobe. African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Africans have arrived in large numbers since the 1980s. We elected America’s first Muslim to Congress and the University of Minnesota boasts one of the largest concentrations of Chinese students. You can see West Indians in white flannels playing cricket in Bryn Mawr meadows on Sunday afternoons and gala quinceañera festivities all over town on Friday and Saturday, as Mexican-American communities celebrate girls’ 15th birthdays.

Even the suburbs are turning colors. Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, not Minneapolis and St. Paul, are the two most racially diverse communities in the region. People of color make up at least 10 percent of the population in 72 of the 183 communities in the metro area — about 40 percent of all suburbs.

To add brightness to our international image, we should highlight what’s happened around town musically since Prince left the stage. Atmosphere, POS, Brother Ali (who is blonde but also Muslim) and their brethren at the influential Rhymesayers Entertainment record label and Doomtree collective are leading lights in the hip-hop world.

It’s chilly here — and not just the weather

It’s not just people of color who find it hard to fit in. Tom Borrup, founder of the national arts-based development firm Creative Community Builders, moved here from the East Coast more than 30 years ago. 

“I found it easy to meet people,” he remembers, “but very few of them grew up here. I heard that you were really accepted as a Minnesotan when you got invited to someone’s cabin. Well, that took about 15 years.”

“In Minnesota, a new resident is someone’s who’s lived there 10 years,” reports Katherine Loflin, author of the Knight Foundation’s landmark Soul of a Community study, which studied 26 regions around the country to find what factors create a sense of belonging for local people. She found that “young talent” was the “least welcome” of all the groups in MSP.

Is our economy at risk for not taking risks?

The Star Tribune recently shouted bad news on its front page: “Minnesotans ranked last in creating new businesses.” According to Patrick Boulay, publisher of New Business Minnesota, the newspaper based its story on a mistaken presentation of data by the Kaufman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity. Mark Ritchie, who registers new businesses in his position as Minnesota secretary of state, reports, “For the record in 2012, Minnesota had one of the highest years on record for new business filings and on a per capita basis we were way ahead of the ‘hot’ states of Ohio, North Dakota and Wisconsin.” Nonetheless our economic dependence on big, established companies is worrisome. “What if you took half of our Fortune 500 companies out of the equation?” asks Curtis Johnson. “I believe these companies are more mobile than we think.”

Since most of our big employers are homegrown it’s essential that we continue nurturing small businesses, which provide more jobs than big companies. This inevitably raises questions about the business climate, which has been a political dogfight for decades. Do MSP’s high taxes squelch prosperity? Depends on whom you talk to. But it seems clear that even with relatively higher taxes, our economy has remained stronger than many low-tax/low-services regions around the country. 

But another deterrent to entrepreneurship merits further scrutiny. “The business climate here is terrible,” declares real-estate consultant Sam Newberg. “I’m not talking about taxes. I’m talking about all the bureaucratic obstacles, like needing to provide two bathrooms in a tiny store. We need to make easier to do the right thing.”

Lagging behind in livability, walkability and transit

Any discussion about the business climate should be broadened to include what spurs economic development along with what inhibits it. That’s the crux of the familiar Creative Class theory, which holds that regions with a high quality of life attract the young creative workers and entrepreneurs who are critical to economic success in the 21st century. Many local observers worry that we are falling short on important measures of urban livability, walkability and public transportation, which are dear to the emerging generation of creative workers.

The Millennial Generation — born after 1980 and now entering the work force in large numbers to replace tens of millions of baby boomers soon to retire — are the first generation in a century not obsessed with autos. Even Motor Trend magazine admits that young urban professionals are less likely to buy cars than in the past.

While MSP sports some of the best bikeways anywhere in the U.S., we are outpaced by many other regions when it comes to walking and transit. Even with the soon-to-open Green Line, we’re still behind places like Dallas, St. Louis, San Diego, Baltimore, Salt Lake City and even Los Angeles on rail transit, not to mention our A-list competitors.

Tom Borrup, who consults with people around the country wanting to improve their communities, does not mince words: “The one area that’s horrendous here is public spaces. Aside from the great parks, it boggles my mind how the streets, neighborhoods and downtowns are so car-oriented.  Being a world-class city depends on good and aesthetically pleasing places to walk.”

Walkability is an issue that goes beyond transportation choices, air quality and exercise. Places where people walk a lot are also places where people interact, the secret sauce of vibrant cities.

Summit Avenue bike route sign
MinnPost photo by Corey AndersonWhile MSP sports some of the best bikeways anywhere in the U.S., we are outpaced by many other regions when it comes to walking and transit.

“We are losing the chance to interact with one another,” argues Max Musicant, founder of a local ‘placemaking’ firm. “We need public spaces to come together.” 

“There’s still an attitude here the status quo needs to be suburban office parks, subdivisions and freeways,” says Jay Corbalis, a 27-year-old real-estate developer from D.C. .who works around the country. “Minneapolis-St. Paul is behind the curve, which is why so many Big 10 graduates are flooding into Chicago where they can walk, ride trains and live a big-city life.”

Not quite a big city?

Is MSP is a big city along the lines of Seattle, Toronto, Boston and Chicago, or an overgrown version of Duluth or Sioux Falls? That’s the question at the heart of one of our most contentious issues today: urban density.

“Getting the kind of energy, vibe and experience that people want in a city doesn’t happen without density,” explains Patrick Seeb, executive director of the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation. “People equate density with tall buildings but new developments like you see at 50th & France show you can do density in other ways.”

People here have long equated an urban atmosphere with blight, while spread-out houses with easy freeway access symbolized the good life as seen on TV shows like “The Brady Bunch.” But many young people today aspire to the urbane world of “Friends,” “How I Met Your Mother” and “Happy Endings.”  The 20th century American Dream of a big house and a green lawn is not disappearing any time soon, but increasing numbers of people want the choice of living in more compact, lively neighborhoods within walking distance of amenities, including convenient transit. The regions that thrive in the future will offer people both options.

Our distinctiveness deficit

 “What’s iconic around here?” asks Carol Becker, who teaches public policy at Hamline University and is an elected member of the Minneapolis Board of Estimate and Taxation. “Besides the Juicy Lucy, which is just a cheeseburger turned inside out, what’s our special food?”

The IDS Center looks a lot like skyscrapers everywhere, and the Walker Art Center’s cherry spoonbridge is hardly an Eiffel Tower. What are we best known for? Probably the Mall of America, an impression Sam Newberg finds “embarrassing.” The overwhelming majority of its stores are chains, and even local boy Snoopy has been ejected from the amusement park in favor of a cable TV channel. Is it any wonder people think of us as bland?

Part of the problem, Becker says, is our lack of reverence for the past. “We don’t look back, especially in Minneapolis.”

The arts, particularly, cry out for more attention. The Fringe Festival is America’s largest non-juried arts festival in America. There’s a staggering breadth of grassroots arts organizations — from the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater to The Loft Literary Center to Springboard for the Arts to Skylark Opera to the Walker West Jazz School to the Ethnic Dance Theater to the Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival.

Given that our most universally known attribute is wild swings in the weather, why not grab some attention with big-bang seasonal festivals that show off our extremes?

“The Winter Carnival and Aquatennial are both good, but need some shaking up,” offers Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. What about a major Midsummer Festival to capitalize on our Nordic heritage? And an International Hall of Fame, with exhibits on everything from extreme blizzards to polar explorations to the history of ice hockey as well a gloves-on “freeze chamber” that simulates 30 below and encourages snowball fights in July.

Looking forward, planning is under way for a bid to hold the 2022 World’s Fair here which offers a sterling opportunity to put MSP on the global map.

Our near-total obscurity as a travel destination

It’s difficult to shift perceptions of a place very few folks have ever set foot.

This poses a missed opportunity far bigger than lost hotel and restaurant revenues.

“Tourism and cultural exchange leads to trade, which leads to investment, which leads to jobs, which leads to wealth creation,” points out Michael Langley, president of Greater MSP, the new organization to attract investment in the region. Happy tourists become prospective residents, or even if they have no plans to move here they nonetheless spread the word back home.

Our Midwestern humility may blind us to MSP’s appeal as an urbane destination.  For the last two years we’ve led the rising star category of Travel + Leisure magazine’s “America’s Favorite Cities” poll, where 40,000 readers ranked 35 cities for their best qualities. Last year, they ranked us #1 for Intelligent, Cleanliness and Parks/Outdoors;  #2 for Theater, #3 for Gay-Friendly. We topped vacation hot spots such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Las Vegas, Boston, Honolulu, and Washington, D.C.

Making cold cool

The one thing people everywhere knows about MSP is our temperatures. But cold does not automatically means terrible. Kerri Westenberg, travel editor of the Star Tribune who moved here from Los Angeles, says, “We should be celebrated for winter rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.”

We need to talk about ourselves as the “Northern Sunbelt”; we enjoy blue skies for most of the winter when other places endure a dismal blanket of clouds, says local education expert Ted Kolderie. Director of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ Project on Regional and Industrial Economies Ann Markusen has pored over data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which show we are among the country’s sunniest places outside the Sun Belt. Indeed, our climate may actually be a sweet spot between the gray skies that generally prevail to our east and the barren brown landscapes to our west.

Disturbingly, climate change might make Minnesota look more attractive by raising temperatures and shortening winter at the same time as erasing favorable impressions of hot weather. But polar explorer Will Steger cautions that global warming will also bring more deforestation, decline in water quality, major storms, invasive species, vermin, drought, and heat waves.  But that’s mild compared to the sea level rise, hurricanes, water shortages, severe droughts, and interminable heat waves threatening other parts of the country.  

And let’s not forget one of the least appreciated virtues of cold weather. Many of our region’s strengths have been born out of the necessity of doing things better than other places to compensate for the perceived liabilities of Minnesota winters, reminds Jon Pratt, director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits

Advantages to build upon

Despite all these challenges, a thorough assessment of our strengths and weaknesses against other U.S. regions shows that MSP’s glass stands closer to full than to empty. Here are some of our current assets:

Business and economy

  • A well-educated workforce
  • A strong creative industry sector
  • A strong work ethic throughout all levels of the labor force 
  • A low-cost of living compared to other high-income metropolitan areas
  • A diverse economy, which offers resilience in periods of economic upheaval
  • Relatively low unemployment
  • A hub airport with nonstop flights to 135 destinations, including Europe and Asia

 Public participation, civil society and government

  • A vital civic sector, encompassing citizens groups and nonprofit organizations across many sectors
  • A strong philanthropic sector, committed to the region
  • Civic-minded citizens who show high levels of volunteerism and community engagement
  • High social capital due to widespread participation in civic and religious organizations
  • Progressive, efficient, transparent government
  • Tax-base sharing on the regional scale, which helps poorer municipalities avoid steep decline
  • Regional coordination on transportation, planning, sewers, parks and housing through the Met Council

 Education, arts and recreation

  • A major research university and a many well-regarded four-year and community colleges
  • A vibrant, internationally recognized arts community, ranging across all genres and mediums
  • A wealth of arts institutions to sustain and inspire local creativity
  • Generous funding of the arts at a rate 13.5 times the national average
  • A lively, nationally recognized music scene, ranging from orchestras to bar bands
  • Excellent parks and trails offering access to nature in people’s neighborhoods that is surpassed no where else in America
  • Topnotch outdoor recreation at lakes, forests, prairies and other public lands
  • The best network of urban bicycle trails in the country, and high levels of bike commuting
  • Five major-league sports teams, plus Big 10 athletics

 Community and social

  • Growing ethnic and international diversity
  • High rank in ratings of gay-friendly communites
  • A burgeoning food scene encompassing gourmet restaurants, ethnic eateries, farmers markets, local food purveyors and food trucks
  • Good housing stock with relatively few abandoned or blighted properties
  • Widespread recognition as a good place to raise a family
  • Plentiful sports, arts, academic and other programs for children
  • High attachment to community, making it one of the hardest markets in the country to recruit people away from
  • People who grew up here returning at high levels after studying or starting careers elsewhere
  • Strong tradition of neighborhood involvement and identity

“So far Minneapolis-St. Paul get good marks,” says Doug Baker, CEO of Eco Lab. But he cautions that we must understand it’s not something in the water. “We need to make it happen.”

 Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults about urban and community issues. He is author of “The Great Neighborhood Book” and “All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons.” For many years he was editor of Utne Reader and now edits This is the first of four reports he is writing for the McKnight Foundation about the prospects of the MSP region. His website is:

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Schwartz on 07/25/2013 - 08:42 am.

    Vanilla City, USA indeed

    Please google quincenara before using the term again. (Or better yet, learn Spanish.)

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 07/25/2013 - 10:19 am.

    We’re the 15th largest metro area in the U.S,

    are you suggesting we shoot for 14?

    I find it amusing that your theme is “MSP, the heart of flyover country”, yet you continue to cite areas in which we are nationally recognized. E.g., Travel + Leisure magazine’s “America’s Favorite Cities” poll.

    Your cultural testosterone is showing.

  3. Submitted by Arito Moerair on 07/25/2013 - 10:34 am.


    Add smugness to the list of challenges. Lifelong MN residents acquire a smugness you have to experience to believe. Essentially it’s this: “You think Minnesota isn’t a slice of heaven? Then leave. We don’t want you here anyway.”

    • Submitted by William Gleason on 07/25/2013 - 11:45 am.

      Minnesota a slice of heaven?

      No place is. Most of us would rather have a job in a good place to raise a family rather than be unemployed in a nicer climate.

      And yes, for some folks at least, the prescription to leave is appropriate. Many of our right wing residents in Minnesota are from North Dakota and other places. They came here in order to find employment. The want Minnesota jobs with Dakota or Carolina taxes. One of the most vociferous complainers on MinnPost – Thomas Swift – now lives in South Carolina.

      If you don’t like same sex marriage, higher taxes, education as a priority, etc., then perhaps you would be happier living elsewhere such as SC?

      Be my guest.

  4. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 07/25/2013 - 10:48 am.

    Vanilla City, USA isn’t the Twin Cities

    It’s Winona, home of the Watkins Company.

  5. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 07/25/2013 - 11:11 am.


    That is quite a list of assets at the bottom of the article. That list almost contradicts the whole point of your article.

    I had to chuckle at your reference to magazine articles about MSP in the 70’s. The big article that we are all so proud of is the Time Magazine cover with Wendy Anderson – the headline – “The Good Life In Minnesota.” Yesterday, you were railing about the Minnesota brand being dominant as opposed to Minneapolis or MSP.

    BTW, your idea of a Nordic fest is just plain silly. There are twice as many people of German heritage in Minnesota than Norwegians and more Irish than Swedes. Beer and whiskey with polkas and jigs sounds like a lot more fun than lutefisk and weak coffee!

  6. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 07/25/2013 - 12:27 pm.

    Don’t get all upset about Minnesota regarding all Latinos as “Mexican.” The majority of Latinos in Minnesota do tend to be Mexicans, from immigrant labor forces over a number of generations now. We just don’t have, and never did have, a lot of Cubans and Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in Minnesota. (The idea that saying “Mexicans” means Minnesotans sadly don’t know anything is SO coastal-provincial).

    One thing: can we please not call ourselves by some letter acronym? Does anyone realize how ugly and nondescript “MSP” is? How corporate, how based-on-mergers-and-acquisitions that sounds? How confusing it would be, to silence and ignore the historical significance of Minneapolis, and St. Paul, as unique places. Come on–in a world where it’s difficult to remember the difference between UBS and USB and AIG and BNSF and CN and their ilk, must we eliminate our identity in order to, y’know, as this report asserts we need to do, get a truly “branded” identity?

  7. Submitted by jody rooney on 07/25/2013 - 12:51 pm.

    Smugness is achieved not inherent as Mr. Moerair stated

    Apparently you haven’t looked at the pluses in the article. Of course we are smug look we are at 15 the only no coastal city to make it. That was buy accident?

    And the advice to leave is because we don’t like conflict, sometimes to our detriment.

  8. Submitted by David Broden on 07/25/2013 - 12:53 pm.

    Assesment without Understanding

    Once again the negative wonks find fault with the Minnesota picture with negatve comment regarding business, quality of life, image, and other factors. Lets get off the negative and look at a the many positives (todays article lists some but continues to whin). Before we say how bad it is lets see who is whin– mostly the ‘Self styled experts” who likely have never worked in the economy other than to do more studies and is easy to find negatives so that funds will appear to do more studies. I suggest part of this series should be how Mn economy has evolved thru cycles — begin with lumber, then railroads, the milling ( a recent discussion with several people indicated that on 1 of 10 new that Mn was once the milling capital of the US and we could have been again but we let the new Cargill venture float away), then we evolved mining, manuafucturing, computers(Control Data, Univac, Honeywell, Cray), aerospace/defense (yes were were viewed as center of unique innovation and capability in the defense technologies–this has largely been lost due to some bad decisions, medical devices has grown and will continue to grow, and many more examples. Agri business and exports remain and continue to grow. The agument that no one wants to come to Mn is nonsense and I have example all over the place.. One key problem is that leadership of the community has shifted from business leaders to community development folks– perhaps will better balance we can regain Mn leadership rather than sink to a follower at best. Lets understand where we have been as we build the future. If we do that we will create the companies populated with innovators who will create products to be built and sold by those who fit the manufacturing and retail jobs. I could go on and on but far too many of those who are planning the state are not aware of the economic evolution and success of Mn — learning from our past will shape the future– I encourage that level of innovative thinking. More whining only makes it worse.

    Dave Broden

  9. Submitted by Bill Slobotski on 07/25/2013 - 01:12 pm.

    Winter and music

    One thing that made me move here many years ago was the classical music scene. During the long winter I depended on the Minnesota Orchestra to give me sparks of light when there was none outside. Losing the Orchestra and the St Paul Chamber Orchestra this last winter has definitely made me wonder if this metro area is turning into a bigger Fargo. And if that ever becomes the case, someone else will be taking my place as a Minnesota resident.

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/25/2013 - 01:27 pm.

    Thank you…

    …Arito Moerair. I couldn’t have said it better.

  11. Submitted by jody rooney on 07/25/2013 - 06:00 pm.

    No one has asked the key question

    why is branding important?

    I have seen enough public money wasted on branding. Although it does support marketing jobs in the private sector but what a complete waste of time.

    I am not being cynical, well okay I am but show me evidence that branding is important to anyone other than a commercial entity.

  12. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 07/25/2013 - 10:28 pm.

    Weather Focus

    The MN Legislature should pass a law limiting local weather to less than 90 seconds of a 30 minute newscast. Bring back Bud Kraehling (sp?) of WCCO. Weather plus poetry in 90 seconds.

    The hysterical weathercasters now do us great harm but warning that it will be cold, like zero. Or that it will snow, like two inches. Or that it will be hot and humid (so what!).

    They bring nothing but bad news. If not today, then tomorrow, or my favorite – the five day forecast!

    All this weather BS has an negative impact on our branding and on our collective state of mind.

    They say that the most accurate weather forecast is to predict that tomorrow’s weather will be very similar to todays! You don’t need 10 minutes and three news segments to say that!

  13. Submitted by David Frenkel on 07/25/2013 - 11:43 pm.


    Bud and Dave Moore had a good time and it was actually funny compared to the forced humor of today. Part of the weather forecast should be how poorly we forcasted today’s actual weather.
    What is surprising are the people who visit MN in the winter and don’t realize how cold it can be here. Like the ones who think they can fly into MSP with no coat and run out to a taxi in below zero weather and regret it.

  14. Submitted by Peter Mikkalson on 11/21/2013 - 10:23 am.

    Re: I’ve got the fix…

    All that’s required is a zillion more $ in taxes, more over- paid governmental employees, more gold-plated municipal pensions, more light rail lines tracing over existing under-utilized bus routes, more tax-paid sports meccas to perpetually moribund professional teams, more entrenched teachers unions, more dishonesty, delusions and personal power trips among the legislature, more governors either obsessed with their national status, or (more recently) oblivious. C’mon folks there’s nothing you can’t be persuaded to fix with more $. It’s the same players been taking your $ forever. Why back out now? It’s time to double-down in fly-over land!

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