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Minneapolis-St. Paul’s identity crisis could mean trouble for our future

This is the first of two articles 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 second story will appear Thursday.

Former St. Paul mayor and U.S. senator Norm Coleman tells the story that when he moved to the Twin Cities his mother back in Brooklyn was convinced it was Minneapolis and Indianapolis.

Jay Corbalis, a 27-year-old Cornell grad who is regional coordinator of the D.C.-based Locus real-estate development firm admits, “On my first business trip I didn’t realize the Mississippi River ran through the Twin Cities.”

David Feehan, a business consultant who until recently headed the International Downtown Association, brought a tour of business leaders through the Twin Cities in 2011.

“Quite frankly, they were astounded. They had a great time,” he recalls. “This was a well-traveled group, and none of them had been to Minneapolis-St. Paul before. They had no image of it other than a cold, northern place.”

Twin Cities, we have a problem!

We’re not on most people’s radar of lively, livable, progressive, prosperous, places. The cities we compete with for business, jobs and well-educated young workers enjoy strong identities as attractive, interesting places. Seattle is Microsoft and Nordstrom. The Bay Area is high-tech and avant-garde culture. Denver is America’s beer capital and the Rocky Mountains. Portland is the capital of urban livability and young hipsters.

What we are best known for is ice, snow, wind chill, mosquitoes, the Mall of America and, if we are lucky, “Prairie Home Companion” — which does not exactly portray us as a dazzling hot spot of culture, innovation and global cosmopolitanism.

Mary Tyler Moore doesn’t live here anymore

“Unless you’re from Fargo or Des Moines, you probably don’t think much about the Twin Cities, except if you’re old enough to remember Mary Tyler Moore tossing her hat in the air on the Nicollet Mall,” comments Feehan, who grew up in Minneapolis and now lives in Washington, D.C. “For a while Prince put Minneapolis back on the map, but that was a long time ago.”  

That’s not fair, you might say. We’re home to more Fortune 500 companies per capita than anywhere in the country. We trail only New York in artistic activity per capita. Our parks are rated among the best in the world, our flourishing restaurants and microbreweries win national awards. We’re tops in recreational biking and civic engagement, according to experts. It’s hard to think of another place that offers so many urban and arts amenities interspersed with the natural beauty of lakes, trails, woods and the Mississippi River.

To top it off, Slate’s business and economics columnist Matthew Yglesias recently counseled, “You should move to Minneapolis.”

Here’s why: “Of the 15 highest income metropolitan areas, 14 are in high-cost coastal areas. The other one … is the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Statistical Area.”

“On many economic and quality of life features, the Twin Cities outperforms other much admired metros — Boston, Denver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and San Diego. Higher educational attainment, higher labor force participation, better job opportunities for young people, lower unemployment, and higher median income adjusted for cost of living,” notes Ann Markusen, director of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ Project on Regional and Industrial Economies.

Guthrie Theater bycylists
MnDOTOutdoor activity and the arts characterize our cities, but many people from elsewhere don’t know that.

But none of this makes any difference if we keep it to ourselves. To pay only scant attention to our image in a globalized age is the equivalent of relying on a landline and P.O. box with no email, Facebook, twitter, texting or Instagram. For young people especially, who’ve internalized “The Brand Called You” ethic of our times, reticence in talking up our strengths is interpreted as being feeble rather than being modest.

“We are not getting the internal migration from other parts of the country that we used to,” including the young talent who have boosted our community and economy over recent decades, says Caren Dewar, executive director of the Urban Land Institute (ULI), which is sponsoring the Greater MSP Ahead program to discuss how to ensure a bright future for the region.

The accomplishments of Minneapolis-St. Paul have always depended on a steady stream of industrious and innovative folks coming here from across the Midwest and points distant. Met Council statistics show that 141,000 more people moved away from the Twin Cities to other parts of the country than moved here between 2001-2010. We’re projected to lose 180,000 more by 2040. “That’s a cause for concern,” Dewar says.

And it’s why over the past few months I have talked to more than 30 urban experts and leaders in a variety of other fields about how the Twin Cities could tell its story more forcefully in a project sponsored by the McKnight Foundation. I also explored what we must do to make sure we have a better story to tell. Looming problems, from the achievement gap to the decline in new businesses cloud our future, which are the focus of an article to follow tomorrow in MinnPost.  

What’s in a name? Plenty!

Part of the answer is changing our name. Seriously. When I sat down with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak to talk about the Twin Cities’ identity crisis, he politely inquired: “Can I ask you not to call us the Twin Cities? It makes it sound like we are only half as good as the Quad Cities.” Michael Langley, president of Greater MSP, informed me there are at least 150 places around the world that call themselves the Twin Cities.

Even worse than “Twin Cities” is the habit of calling ourselves “Minnesota,” according to Steve Berg, a veteran journalist who’s covered urban issues at MinnPost, the Star Tribune and other publications.

“The sign at the airport says Welcome to Minnesota, as if there isn’t a city here,” he says. Same goes for the Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves, Wild, Lynx, Orchestra, Dance Theater and other nationally known institutions that could raise our profile.

Langley doesn’t think “Minneapolis-St. Paul” hits the mark either. It’s a seven-syllable mouthful that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. No other region of a million people anywhere around the world has a longer name except Fukuoka-Kitakyushu, Japan. And if you’ve never heard of Fukuoka-Kitakyushu, its name may be the reason.  

Langley prefers MSP, which also happens be the name of the new organization he heads to attract and retain investment in the 16-county metropolitan region — Greater MSP. It sounds sporty, like LA, DC or NYC. It also happens to be our 3-letter Airport code, which other cities like Portland (PDX) are adopting as monikers.

Back to our story

Overall we have a good, but no means perfect, story to tell. So how do we tell it better?

Jeff Berg, creative director at Olson, which is famed for branding campaigns commissioned by everyone from the Detroit Pistons to Pepsico, says it’s elementary marketing: “We have to figure out what makes us unique from other places. How are we different from, say, San Francisco?”

Off the top of his head, he rolls out some ideas. “Consider the dress code for most men here: flannel, jeans, boots. Does that not say hardy pioneer stock? How do we get people to consider us as a place to live? Maybe they have to ask themselves: Am I hardy (and hearty) enough? Do I want to be a pioneer of industry, live in the land where creativity is demanded? Am I looking for the easy way or the road less traveled? There’s a great play of words here — Minnesota: Can you weather it?”

There are advantages to our long winters too, says Berg, who grew up in Eugene, Ore., and moved here from New York City. “We huddle together in ways you don’t see in other communities. We work together in civic ways to make things happen.”

In a similar vein Sam Newberg, who grew up here and writes the Joe-Urban blog, says, “If I was to sum us up in one word it’s ACTIVE. We’re involved politically and in our communities. We ice fish and ride our bikes all winter. We open up our own brewpubs and spend the long winters discussing ideas with our friends. We’re just active.”  

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:

Thursday: “Challenges threaten Minneapolis-St. Paul’s image as a livable place.”

Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/24/2013 - 10:32 am.


    Why not just merge the two cities, and get rid of a lot of wasteful duplication?

  2. Submitted by jody rooney on 07/24/2013 - 10:52 am.

    And trying to keep a low profile is perfectly Minnesotan

    Sounds like we are right in character.

    How about:
    “Introverts, come to Minnesota your neighbors won’t annoy you.”
    “Where substance counts more than style.” At least on the east side of the Mississippi
    “Live on a lake, work in a city.”
    “Minnesota home of the introspective”
    “Quieter than your average state.”

  3. Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 07/24/2013 - 10:59 am.


    The interchangeable use of “Minnesota” and “Minneapolis-St. Paul” drives me crazier than almost anything. I humorlessly correct people on that one all the time — interrupt them and say, “Don’t say ‘Minnesota’ when you mean the cities. No one would ever say ‘Illinois’ when they mean ‘Chicago.'” This is one of the many reasons why I am so popular at parties.

  4. Submitted by James Hamilton on 07/24/2013 - 11:29 am.

    And we need more people, why?

    This piece simply reminds me that the Twin Cities feels the same way about itself relative to the rest of the country that St. Paul does relative to Minneapolis.

    In my travels, I’ve never had anyone ask “Where’s that?” when I tell them I’m from the Twin Cities. Wear a Wild sweatshirt in Vancouver, a Twins hat in D.C., or a Vikings jacket in San Francisco and everyone knows what they’re seeing. Anyone interested in business and the market knows the forces that are based here. Ditto for music and the arts. The University of Minnesota is known nationally and internationally as a top school.

    We don’t need “branding”, we need counseling.

  5. Submitted by Mike Downing on 07/24/2013 - 12:14 pm.


    The outflow should be of great concern for the MN Legislature and our Governor.

    Yes, MN has a well educated workforce that have Midwest values and are hard workers. However, our business climate has been driving corporate investment outside MN. Some of our old and large corporations wished they could move their headquarters outside MN, e.g. 3M, etc.

    The $2 billion tax increase from the 2013 legislative session was not necessary and only makes MN less competitive compared to other states.

    The truth hurts sometimes.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 07/24/2013 - 01:46 pm.

      Subjective ‘Truth’

      I think the only objective fact here is that we have a well educated and hard-working workforce. The rest of your points only reflect your own subjective truths.

      By all means, flow out to Wisconsin, where the business climate is ‘favorable’ and their job creation rate is 50th in the nation.

      The facts hurt sometimes.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/24/2013 - 04:14 pm.

      Wished they could move

      Why didn’t they? What are they afraid of?

  6. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 07/24/2013 - 12:27 pm.

    Merging cities

    Are you kidding? No one on either side thinks this is a good idea. There’s always been rivalry and competition between the two cities.

  7. Submitted by Hal Davis on 07/24/2013 - 12:50 pm.

    One way

    Based on recent conversations, this may work as a slogan:

    “Marry a Minnesotan. Come for the love, stay for the joy.”

  8. Submitted by Bernie Lunzer on 07/24/2013 - 01:39 pm.

    I’m sure that more marketing would be good, but

    I’ve been gone for 17 years, but I think most people nationally are well aware of the Twin Cities and Minnesota. It has a high profile in that people know it has good education levels, good medicine and is a good place to live. I think the author is being overly negative. The outflow maybe should be of concern but there is still great talent in the Cities. I certainly run into many ex-pats – in fact that’s part of why Minnesota is viewed positively. Everywhere I turn in D.C. I run into a Minnesotan, who are active in their causes and and are giving the Cities and State a good name.

  9. Submitted by Emily Sojourn on 07/24/2013 - 02:13 pm.

    “And this is brand new news… why?”

    Go to the Guthrie and pick up a copy of Tyrone Guthrie’s book, “A New Theatre.” You’ll find that the perception of Minnesota was exactly the same (if not worse) 50 years ago. And yet still we rank high in survey after survey concerning livability, economy, education, culture and so on. We still are the birthplace of many international businesses.

    I totally agree with Bernie that the journalist is too negative. I don’t really see the need to make any drastic changes.

    Tidbit to bring you up short: Guthrie seriously considered Detroit as the home of his theatre. Detroit is more recognizable than Mpls/St. Paul to most. They must of done better “marketing.”

    And yet where are they compared to where we are now?

  10. Submitted by stephanie fox on 07/24/2013 - 02:17 pm.

    Our marketing is not the problem

    I’ve lived on both coasts and the geographical knowledge of folks there is abysmal.

    Before I moved to the Twin Cities (yes, I’m using this term) from Oregon, a friend there looked at me sadly. “I couldn’t live there,” she said. “I could never live in a place that doesn’t have any trees.”
    A friend from Baltimore mentioned he knew someone who lived near me – in Ohio. When I explained that we weren’t actually close, he chuckled condescendingly.

    Do we really want these people here? Why do we have to educate the uneducatable? Life here is GOOD. What would we gain from changing?

    Let them think we live on a treeless tundra with no restaurants, arts or buildings taller than 20 stories. The East Coast is mean and the West Coast is goofy. I’ve been here for 29 years, have lived in no place better. I’m keeping the secret from this kind of riff-raff.

  11. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 07/24/2013 - 02:24 pm.

    How we are different?

    How is living here different from the rest of the country?

    1. We are polite, like Canadians. There there not nearly the “in your face” attitudes that one sees out East. People generally listen to what other people have to say and bend over backwards to be considerate of other people’s points of view.

    2.We have all the sports of major American cities, but our outdoor recreation and arts opportunities are seemingly limitless and not just limited to those who can those who can afford property on the water.

    3. We are the volunteer capital of the country, with more of our citizens getting deeply involved in improving the community than any other major American city.

    4. We are also very receptive of new people from different backgrounds, being known for accepting refugees from around the world and integrating them into our community.

    5. We are not “fair-weather” people – but wear very well with extreme cold, heat and everything in better. We stick with it and don’t bail out.

    6. We live a long-time in good health, as a result of having good work-life balance and top-rate medical services that we want all our citizens to have.

    7. Maybe it is because we are inside a lot of the year, but we play nicely together and also somehow manage to come up with lots of bright people doing creative things.

    8. We elected Michelle Bachmann, Jesse Ventura and Al Franken to positions of public trust, which shows that we have a good sense of humor (take that however you like).

  12. Submitted by Scott Stansbarger on 07/24/2013 - 02:52 pm.

    “Minnesota” vs “Minneapolis” or “St. Paul”

    I absolutely hate how we lump everything as “Minnesota”. We have a huge identity problem and we continually make it worse. I’m always speaking with people across the country and they continually say Minnesota when in fact, they’re talking about Minneapolis. “We’re traveling to Minnesota next week” instead of, “We’re traveling to Minneapolis next week.” I seldom hear people mention a specific city. It’s a global issue for us as well. Take a look at the WCCO website, for example. It’s branded as ‘CBS Minnesota’. Not, ‘CBS Minneapolis’ or ‘CBS Twin Cities’. “CBS Minnesota”. Go to any of the other O&O CBS stations and they are branded as their location city. CBS Denver, CBS Philadelphia, and heck, even the station in Dallas/Ft. Worth is labeled as ‘CBS DFW’.
    We do have a problem and we need to begin saying “Minneapolis” and/or “St. Paul” instead of a generic “Minnesota”.

  13. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 07/24/2013 - 03:26 pm.

    Where to start?

    I’ve lived here for 37 years (since my mid-twenties) and I have several observations on this article, the comments thereto, and the overall issue of the Twin Cities’ “brand”:

    1. There is a deep ambivalence in the Twin Cities about whether we really WANT people from elsewhere. This is expressed in several of the above comments and experienced by virtually everyone “not from here.” Transplants are repeatedly asked to explain why they’re in Minnesota. I was viewed with suspicion by law firms when I came here as a newly-married young lawyer; more than 30 years later, my California-born son-in-law (a U of M law graduate and member of the Minnesota Bar) faced the same distrust. One firm actually required him to put his “contacts” with Minnesota in writing! Result: he and my daughter now live in Las Vegas, where both found employment. On the personal level, newcomers soon get the message from neighbors and co-workers that there just isn’t room in their lives for them. Until Minnesotans open their hearts on the micro-level, many transplants will not be happy here—and will not stay. Sorry, Joel Stegner above, but we are NOT “very receptive of new people from different backgrounds.”

    2. We need to get over the idea that we have a monopoly on virtue. Believe it or not, there are lots of wonderful people in other parts of the country, including “out East.” I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “You’re from the EAST? But you’re so NICE!” with absolutely no awareness of how insulting that is. I have actually heard Minnesotans claim, after a blizzard or other significant event requiring mutual assistance, that “nowhere else” would you see neighbors pulling together to help each other the way they do here. Ridiculous! Ask my daughter in New Jersey about the neighbors who offered their homes, their Internet connections, their electricity to recharge cellphones, after Hurricane Sandy last year. It does nothing to diminish the willingness of Minnesotans to help each other to acknowledge that they aren’t unique in doing so.

    3. The weather is a huge barrier, and will only become more so in the future. Whether you characterize it as Americans going “soft” or not, the fact is that people are less and less willing to put up with bad weather, particularly long, cold winters. Back in the day, physical and psychological barriers kept most people close to the place of their birth. Now that more people have a choice where to live, many opt for a gentler climate. Three months of winter? Fine—even desirable from my point of view. Six months of winter, as we had last year followed by a nonexistent spring? Most people with a choice would say, “No, thanks.”

  14. Submitted by jody rooney on 07/24/2013 - 03:52 pm.

    Minnesota is where you are from.

    Either Andy Sturdevant and Scott Stansbarger are from Minneapolis and haven’t gotten over their Minneapolis superiority complex or they are not native Minnesotans.

    People say they are from Minnesota instead of the town because it isn’t anyone’s business but your own where you live. It’s not an identity issue it is a privacy issue.

    But to be truthful most of the country wouldn’t recognize any town in Minnesota without adding the state except for Minneapolis or Duluth and maybe International Falls. There are lots of St. Pauls, St. Clouds, Moorheads, and two pretty prominent Rochesters and Bloomingtons without further conversation. Really why prolong the conversation.

  15. Submitted by craig furguson on 07/24/2013 - 03:57 pm.

    MSP Statistical Area

    I always think it’s funny whenever I hear about an economic report for “Minneapolis” and I look at the details and it’s for the MSP statistical area, which includes suburban counties, St. Paul and even a part of Wisconsin.

  16. Submitted by David Frenkel on 07/24/2013 - 04:40 pm.


    One thing that really hurts the Twin Cities is its lack of racial, ethnic and religious diversity. In a global world many of our children do not get the breadth of other cultures needed to understand our every changing world. Certainly the Twin Cities have some of the largest Somali, Vietnamese, Hmong and Native American populations in the US but they don’t represent the majority of the regions of the world.

  17. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 07/24/2013 - 04:59 pm.

    Welcome to Minnesota?

    What’s wrong with that sign at the airport? Really you are in Bloomigton, not Minneapolis anyway. When crosses the Red River from Fargo to Moorhead, it says “Welcome to Minnesota”. Criticizing that airport sign is an insult to the rest of the state and its residents. I could go on about how metro-centric that mentality is, but hey, what do I know, I am not from MSP.

  18. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 07/24/2013 - 05:00 pm.


    I am struck by a couple of things on this article. First – out-migration. The metro area grew by 200,000+ people in the 2000-2010 decade. I guess that is a lot of baby making. Secondly, on the out migration question, I suspect that we are losing a bunch of retirees who still live here 49.9% of the year. If you look at the apartment building for young hipsters in the north loop and elsewhere anywhere close to downtown Minneapolis, you wouldn’t think that we have a problem attracting young talent.

    I think that the idea to market our community as Greater MSP is fine. If you drop the Greater to just MSP, people might think you were talking about Mississippi! For years, public policy leaders have promoted the idea of a regional vision – that the wellbeing of the inner city and the suburbs were economically and socially linked. I guess we believed it.

    The Twin Cities is not an accurate label anymore since the metro area has about 100 cities. With Woodbury, Eagan and Lakeville closing in on Bloomington in population, I am not sure what a catchy name would be. Clearly Minneapolis, though only slightly more than 10% of the metro population, is the most clearly identified brand name for the region.

    I could care less what the masses know or don’t know about our metro area and the state, but I do hope that most of our national business investment decision makers can place us on a map. If they can’t, do we really think that they could run a large successful business? If you have some locational self-esteem issues, I encourage you to go to the Greater MSP web site. They document the data and what third-party people think about the Twin Cities – pretty, pretty good, for sure!

  19. Submitted by jody rooney on 07/24/2013 - 11:58 pm.

    If you don’t think we are diverse

    spend some time in a hospital, rehab or long term care facility were a large percentage of employees are as the say “not from around here.”

    It has been quite a shock for my 91 year old suburban mom to be cared for by everyone from Physicians and Aides whose first language is not English. Sort of tough on her to realize that the world has changed that fast when she is in a vulnerable state.

  20. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 07/25/2013 - 07:41 am.

    Let’s be honest…

    …St. Paul is simply a suburb of Mpls. We give it state government as a subsidy. Take that away and it would simply cease to be. Ask Macy’s how appealing it is.

  21. Submitted by Mark Byrnes on 07/25/2013 - 09:56 am.

    Lets review the numbers before we get concerned.

    This series reminds me of the handwringing that my family does over 1, yes only 1, of my siblings moving away.

    According to the article, “141,000 more people moved away from the Twin Cities to other parts of the country than moved here between 2001-2010. We’re projected to lose 180,000 more by 2040.”

    So from moving we lost about 14K people a year from 2001-2010. I’m going to be generous and say that the 180K number is from 2013-2040, so will lose another 7K people a year. So the rate at which people moving away vs moving here is falling significantly according the numbers in the article.

    Also the total population of the Twin Cities is increasing. Given the time frame in the article 2001-2010, “” finds that there has been an increase of about 180K (18K a year) people in the Twin Cities.

    So if more people are moving away (and dying) and the population continues to increase then the growth is organic. From the numbers above, we look like very good reproducers. As long as we continue our standard methods of keeping warm in the winter, we’ll continue to see a population increase. No need for concern.

  22. Submitted by Jim Mork on 07/30/2013 - 03:59 pm.


    I think there are some among us suffering from identity problems. I don’t think the city has any at all, but troubled personalities are pushing us to engage in PR schemes rather than simply face the fact THEY have the problem. Really? Norm Coleman? His problem is pure ambition that he can’t control. Any exposition starting with a Norm Coleman story is automatically suspect. I wish he’d just stayed in New York where Anthony Weiner is who I think is more Norm Coleman’s speed.

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