Macy’s takes a hike and our identity crisis worsens

News that Macy’s is folding its regional corporate tent here and decamping to New York brought a churlish response from Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. His terse 57-word “press release” on Wednesday stating regret that Macy’s would  “no longer be a part of” the city’s collection of advertising and marketing talent was his shortest in memory.

But the absence of words from the usually chatty Rybak, and the release’s passive-aggressive tone, reflected perfectly the void that Minnesotans feel about their collective condition, and their relative place in the world.

The trend is plainer every day. Big-time talent is re-sorting itself into big-time markets, and Minneapolis-St. Paul feels as if it is being pushed into the back row of second-tier American cities. The departure of Northwest Airlines for Atlanta is the next shoe likely to drop, perhaps as early as next week.

All of that explains why Johann Santana’s escape from the Minnesota Twins, and his comment to the New York media that “it wasn’t a hard decision,” felt like a blow to the midsection. And that’s why Kevin Garnett’s spectacular success in Boston after years of disappointment with the Minnesota Timberwolves brings on a pang of envy. The exit of these and other sports stars is a metaphor for what ails  the Twin Cities right now: the feeling that ours is a place to build up your resume for the ultimate reward in a more visible  place – or as Santana put it, he was happy to be with the Mets for “the next stage of my career.”

Minnesota excellence?

Minnesotans have spent the last three decades convincing themselves that excellence is possible even in the provinces; that a “Minnesota exceptionalism” separates this place from other outposts in the sticks, and that something remarkable has been built here in an otherwise cold and remote place.

But then, when Norwest Bank buys Wells Fargo and moves to San Francisco, as happened a few years back, and when Honeywell becomes Allied Signal and sets up shop in New Jersey, and when the St. Paul Companies (Travelers) are less and less really in St. Paul,  and when Ford pulls out of Highland Park, and when the Star Tribune is taken over by people from Sacramento, and then sold to a group of New York liquidators, and now, as the ax falls on what was once a community treasure known as Dayton’s, well, the moment seems ripe for Time magazine to return for a sequel to its glowing 1973 appraisal, and to ask the question: What the hell happened?

It would be nice to explain away all of that by pointing to the wave of new corporate and community energy filling the empty holes. But that’s not happening. The job growth picture has been dismal. Indeed, the state and region have fallen behind the national average on a number of economic indicators. Increasingly, Minneapolis-St. Paul seems to be assuming the Rest Belt characteristics of its Great Lakes neighbors, rather than the more dynamic flavors of its western competitors.

If the Minnesota Vikings follow Northwest Airlines out the door, as well could happen, the region’s national identity problem would take another big hit. No “rebranding” campaign can paper over the recent string of losses, felt perhaps most poignantly by Macy’s announcement this week. It was a reminder that the that the special, almost reverent feeling  you had walking into Dayton’s flagship store on Nicollet Mall has been slipping away for some time, and now has been lost forever.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Stephen Gross on 02/07/2008 - 04:05 pm.

    MSP should indeed take heed on this issue. I assure you, Great Lakes rust belt cities are scary indeed. The economies of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Toledo, Detroit, and Milwaukee were ravaged by the precipitous and long decline of the manufacturing sector. In addition to this, school desegragation led to a vast middle-class white exodus from the center cities. The practical result is difficult, to say the least.

    MSP needs to study and recognize its assets, and maximize them to its fullest advantage. These include a fairly diverse economy, a strong commitment to independent retail, decent schools, a high quality-of-living, a key location in the coast-to-coast air-based supply chain, and an excellent (and gigantic) state university.

    We should constantly ask ourselves: What do we do well? How could we make it even better?

    And: What resources are underutilized? What are the really great things about this region that don’t seem to get enough press?

  2. Submitted by John Olson on 02/07/2008 - 04:44 pm.

    Is this painful? Yes–especially for those located downtown who will lose their jobs. Was this inevitable for this company?

    It seems to me that answer is “yes.”

    When Macy’s purchased Marshall Field’s, which had purchased Dayton/Hudson, which had merged Dayton’s and Hudson Department Stores some years earlier, the writing was on the wall. Traditional “department stores” had become a fond memory for many of us. Somehow, the idea of a department store synonymous with New York City tolerating the land of Santa Bear, Frango chocolates and wild rice soup in the restaurant for an extended period of time in flyover land was not going to work.

    Having recently visited the Macy’s in downtown St. Paul, it is not hard to see that the end of the line is approaching.

    The realities are that the traditional department store is in a world of hurt, trying to cope with the likes of Target (spun off from Dayton/Hudson), Wal-Mart and Kohl’s, to name a few. The only one of the bunch that has a chance of survival is Nordstrom’s and that is largely due, in my opinion, to the fact that they chose to locate in the Mall of America instead of trying to compete at one of the Dales or downtown. One has to wonder if Dayton/Hudson had chosen to anchor one of the corners of the MOA when it opened in the early 1990’s, could things have played out differently?

    The larger question for the two downtowns is how they try to rebuild retail. If the day comes that the downtown Minneapolis Macy’s disappears, it will be a milestone…and not a good one.

  3. Submitted by Mark Weber on 02/08/2008 - 09:36 am.

    Nice article, Mr. Berg. Prior to reading it, I was merely “blue.” Now I’m suffering from major depression.

  4. Submitted by Stephen Dent on 02/11/2008 - 12:03 pm.

    For sometime now I have predicted Minneapolis St. Paul’s fall into a sort of “second-class” status even as we scream to the rest of the world our relevance in culture and arts.

    When I moved to Minneapolis from Miami in the early 1970’s, this area was an urban gem. I was in awe of the social contract the state had with people. “We’ll tax you but we’ll build a great state” seemed to be the code and things worked in amazing ways as compared to corrupt and inept Miami. But things have drastically changed, so much so that when I return to Miami, Minneapolis looks small and provincial in many ways.

    I blame this backslide on our state turning “purple” politically and conservative socially. The Republican mentality of looking out after self at the expense of society has negatively impacted the social contract we once took for granted. Using the mantra of “no new taxes,” we reduced funding to support a world-class infrastructure, (mass-transit, education and research, urban design) and created social barriers to inclusiveness – (gay marriage, as an example) and we’ve witnessed talented, creative and innovative people move elsewhere where they are free to express themselves fully as human beings and contribute to their communities and thus feel content about where they live. I’ve often said, if we could bring back every Minnesotan who has left Minnesota, this state would have a population of 10 million, not 5 million. Think of the wealth and talent that has fled this state, and not always for just warm temperatures.

    If we want to be a truly great metropolitan area and state, we need to get back to our liberal roots, invest in our society and socially free people up to contribute in ways we cannot even imagine. Only then will people want to flock to our “wasteland in the frozen sticks.”

  5. Submitted by B Maginnis on 02/21/2008 - 10:48 am.

    Higher crime rates and higher taxes do not a thriving metropolitan area make.

    Conratulations, Minnesota socialists, you are making us more “average” everyday!

    Thankfully, we have some nice lakes around here.

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