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

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

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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: