Listening to business people yields jobs in St. Paul

Politicians cannot resist making speeches about their commitment to jobs, but politicians in St. Paul recently took action that shows they are serious about the job base in Minnesota’s capital city.

Government, business and union leaders will gather at the Gerdau steel mill in St. Paul next week for a groundbreaking ceremony. Gerdau intends to move ahead with a $50 million upgrade to the plant that employs more than 330 people.

gerdau logoGerdau, which has 53 steel mills around the globe, will replace the continuous caster in St. Paul and boost its output of special steel.

This expansion was not a foregone conclusion because Gerdau didn’t have to add new equipment to the aging St. Paul plant. It could have invested in a plant at another location.

Government and business leaders took the time to listen to Gerdau’s management and they worked together to retain a company that provides hundreds of good-paying jobs and contributes to the property tax base.

The St. Paul Port Authority is providing a $500,000 forgivable loan to this project, and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development is expected to provide some additional financing assistance and worker training.

Xcel Energy worked with Gerdau on its rate structure and Xcel will be serving a customer that will have a higher electricity demand after the expansion is completed.

Leadership role

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce played a leadership role in bringing people together who had resources that could help keep this 46-year-old steel mill as a competitive business and important employer.

Of course, these kinds of resources aren’t available for every company that is doing business in St. Paul or elsewhere. Many conservatives abide by the notion that government shouldn’t pick winners and losers. And many liberals view any business assistance as corporate welfare.

But in this case, following the closure of the Ford plant in St. Paul, public and private leaders leveraged their resources to preserve manufacturing jobs.

St. Paul is a community in which one in four people live in poverty.

It is a community that needs all kinds of businesses to prosper, employ people and share the property tax burden with homeowners.

Careful use of regulations

The St. Paul City Council demonstrated this week that it understands that government must tread carefully with regulations or it will stunt the business growth that the city needs. Anybody who wants good schools, parks and city services should also place a premium on a thriving business community that helps pay for those public goods.

On Wednesday, the City Council loosened its regulations on restaurants that serve liquor. The City Council decided to reduce the number of off-street parking spots that are required for these types of restaurants.

This issue surfaced when businessman Kevin VanDeraa wanted to open a Cupcake wine bar in St. Paul, but he found the off-street parking ordinance to be onerous. He nearly washed his hands of St. Paul, but Mayor Chris Coleman jumped into the fray and helped him line up parking and the City Council assisted by adopting an ordinance that’s reasonable for VanDeraa and other business owners.

In the steel mill and restaurant cases, public officials bothered to listen to business people and responded in ways that show they care about supporting a healthy private sector in St. Paul.

“Small business owners face many obstacles,” Coleman said in his State of the City address in late March. “City government must not be just another obstacle to success.”

When working with business people, Coleman said, “We have to be better at getting to yes than we are at getting to no.”

Coleman flirted with a bid for governor as a Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate, but he recognizes that St. Paul needs to be a hospitable place for business and labor.

Fedor can be reached at lfedor@minnpost.com.

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