Chicago Avenue quietly turns into Medical Alley

Unless you’re a tourist destination like Vail or a retirement haven like Scottsdale, it’s hard to have a good city without good jobs. Good jobs are the foundation for building the middle class life so fundamental to the success of American cities. A city too weighed down by poverty and disorder finds it impossible to compete; a city too loaded with wealth becomes merely an enclave.

Minneapolis owes its success to its middle class mooring. Along with St. Paul, it has avoided the hole-in-the-doughnut fate that has claimed many Midwestern cities. Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee all rank in the national top 10 for concentrated poverty.

Still, for Minneapolis, it’s harder and harder to retain a middle class profile given the trends in the local and national economy. Incomes in the bottom three quintiles have grown hardly at all over the last three decades while incomes toward the top have shown spectacular gains. That distribution has benefited suburbs most. Minneapolis has kept some share of its wealth and a core of professionals. But middle class families with children have been steadily slipping away, as suggested by school statistics. Two-thirds of city public school students now come from poor households, up from one-third in 1982. No task is more important to Minneapolis’ future than turning poor kids into middle class wage earners.

‘Minneapolis Miracle’
That’s why Mike Christenson, director of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED), gets especially excited when talking about the city’s emerging Lifesciences Corridor, and, most recently, the start of construction on Children’s Hospital’s new $200 million expansion that will straddle Chicago Avenue. The project initially will bring 150 new jobs for nurses, imaging technicians, pharmacists, respiratory therapists and other specialists, adding to the 3,200 new health care jobs offered in the city last year.

“The Minnesota Miracle may be over,” Christenson said, referring to the state’s dreary trend in job creation, “but the Minneapolis Miracle has just begun.” He was talking about the city’s success in outpacing the state as a jobs producer in recent months. Minneapolis appears to have gained a toehold on health care employment — and with that comes the promise of upward mobility for the city’s youth. At least, that’s Christenson’s aim.

At CPED, he oversees what you might call the city’s aspirations. Everything from streetcars to stadiums, from condo projects to office towers to retail strategies flashes across his screen daily. But all of that is pointless without a base of middle class jobs matched to a generation of new workers qualified to fill them. That’s the challenge that shifts Christenson forward in his chair and widens his eyes.

“There’s a story going on here that almost nobody knows about,” he says. “Crime is down and the city is poised to move ahead on filling the pipeline with jobs and kids from Minneapolis who will be trained to do those jobs.”

His office will soon add a representative from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities to help match the city’s youth with health care careers most needed in the local market. “We’re now putting 500 kids a year into health care careers,” he said of the city’s efforts with private and nonprofit partners. “That’s not bad. But we have to start thinking about 5,000.”

More jobs, rising incomes
Children’s expansion is one link in a chain of investments underway along the corridor — starting at Allina’s new $100 million corporate headquarters in the Midtown Exchange complex on Lake Street, then continuing north to Abbott Northwestern’s recent $125 million hospital expansion, Phillips Eye Institute’s $17 million addition, and the $90 million expansion planned at Hennepin County Medical Center. Extend the line across the river to the Fairview-University medical complex, itself planning a $275 million expansion on Riverside Avenue, and you get one of the largest concentrations of medical care — and medical job opportunities — in the nation.

The jobs added last year are just a start, Christenson said. He interprets the investments made in recent years as a billion-dollar vote of confidence in Minneapolis. During the shaky 1980s and ’90s, many of those institutions considered fleeing. A major turnaround in the Phillips neighborhood (remember “Murderapolis”?), led directly to today’s progress, he said. The Phillips turnaround has been startling: a 70 percent decline in welfare families since 1990, according to Census figures, and an 80 percent increase in median family income, adjusted for inflation. Add to that the new glass, brick and steel along Chicago Avenue and you get a whole new picture.

“The changing face of this corridor is spectacular,” said Manuel Benegas, director of the Center for Care, Innovation and Research at Children’s Hospital. Proximity along the corridor helps institutions collaborate on applied research, share best practices on patient care and market the area as an exciting place to innovate, he said. “There’s a lot of brain power along this street.”

It’s about far more than hospitals, Christenson said. It’s about the advantages of co-locating research applications and medical practice. It’s about synergy and the advantages of using critical mass to come up with better ideas. “This is one of the best redevelopment stories in urban America, but nobody knows it yet,” Christenson said. “You don’t have to go look at Cleveland or Houston. It’s right here. Just ask what’s happening on Chicago Avenue.”

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