Last week, I got a shot of hope.
It happens so infrequently that I had to lie down for a while to recover.
The event that produced this strange reaction was a “press familiarization tour” to highlight the wonders of “St. Paul on the Move.” It was sponsored by the Minneapolis Saint Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership, which calls itself Greater MSP. The mission of this 18-month-old chamber-of-commerce-like group is to sell companies on locating in the 13-county metro (and incidentally hiring lots of people).
In the interest of transparency, I feel compelled to inform readers that MSP paid for my lunch at Muffuletta ($8.95 plus coffee, tax and tip), hauled me and other ink-stained wretches around in a minivan and gave us each a free notebook. I don’t think any of that, however, was responsible for most of my positivity.
Meanwhile, back at the tour. Over cups of Caribou (I forgot about them — add $2), Doug Baker, MSP’s chair and CEO of Ecolab, a St. Paul water-safety company, gave us the pitch. Instead of having every city in the metro compete for businesses, MSP plans to brand and market the entire region on the theory that a corporation moving to Belle Plaine indirectly benefits people in Brooklyn Center or Eden Prairie. But Baker is also a big downtown booster. “If you give up on the center, you give up on the whole community,” he said.
That statement alone evoked Surge of Optimism #1. Why? Because any number of people kiss off our two core cities as though they are the geographic version of the buggy whip. Typical example from some recent Internet postings: “When will Minneapolis — and St. Paul — acknowledge that the pre-WWII model of downtown is DEAD?” It was good to hear from a captain of technology that he thinks the center (or in this case, centers) can — and must — hold.
Surge of Optimism #2 came with a visit to the offices of the Met Council where Mark Fuhrmann, the manager of all the light rail programs, gave us a rundown on the 18 stations of the Central Corridor LRT due to begin operations in 2014. I had feared that the Central Corridor might wind up as bare of development as Hiawatha Avenue. In fact, there’s a lot going on. Here are just some of the projects on the line that are in the pipeline or already complete:
Union Depot renovation
Nexus for Amtrak, Jefferson bus lines and Metro Transit
End of 2012
254 apartments and Lund’s grocery store
Offices, 46,000 square feet
Chittenden and Eastman Building
Rehab to create 104 market-rate lofts
Project for Pride in Living
2-building, 4 story low-income apartments
Done in 2014
140 units for senior living including assisted living and memory care units
Construction starting in 2013
Old Home Dairy
100 units of mixed income housing
Underground parking, commercial and 30 units of low-income housing
Construction starting in 2013
Habitat for Humanity
Complete in winter of 2013-14
Neighborhood businesses on first floor, 3 floors for seniors above
8-story, 115,00 square foot mental health facility
Opens late this year
After that session, our driver dodged through construction zones and dropped us at an architectural office on Raymond Avenue where we met Catherine Reid Day and Geoff Warner, who are trying to promote the neighborhood — which lies midway between the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns — as a “Creative Enterprise Zone.” What’s that? Well, it’s a little confusing, but as best I could grasp, they want to find “development partners” to help create affordable spaces where entrepreneurs, artists and residents can do their thing. Part of their task, said Day, is to “highlight what’s already in the area” — a batch of innovative businesses that include woodworking, publishing, photography and so on — and to that end they are planning to install banners or beacons to mark enterprises that fill the bill.
While I admire their intent, doubts ate at my enthusiasm. It’s hard to create Greenwich Village almost from scratch. And the Raymond Avenue folks might have to compete with the people in Northeast Minneapolis who consider themselves the ultimate in artiness. Still, if you subscribe to the theory advanced by economist Richard Florida in “The Rise of the Creative Class,” that scientists, entrepreneurs, artists and other pursuers of innovation will create the next economic renaissance, then maybe the Creative Enterprise Zone may be for real — though I am not so sure banners are that important. Nevertheless, I detected Surge #3, small but there nonetheless.
Off to the U
Next stop: the University of Minnesota, where Monique MacKenzie, the director of planning and development, filled us in on the school’s efforts to transform itself into a “transit-influenced campus” from a car-dominated place where my sister used to say that a freshman course requirement was Parking 101. Instead of commuting from afar, two-thirds of all students now live within five miles of their classrooms. And the University aims, she added, to be able to have enough student housing to allow every freshman to live on campus.
The LRT will have three stops at the University, and there will be a pedestrian mall with 20-foot-wide sidewalks stretching from Pleasant to Walnut Streets on Washington Avenue. Presumably, businesses there will profit from the foot traffic.
The University is not projecting any great increase in enrollment from its current 50,000. But its dominance as a research center will grow. Already, says MacKenzie, some $2 billion in federal and state dollars are going into renovation and construction of various buildings, including a physics and nanotechnology building due to be completed next year and an ambulatory care center.
We moved on to the aforementioned lunch, then took a ride so long that I thought we were halfway to Duluth; it turned out, however, that we were only going to Arden Hills, home of Galil Medical, which makes a machine that freezes and destroy tumors (so far only of the renal and prostate variety, but they’re conducting research on lung cancer) — without surgery. The company got its start in Israel but relocated to the United States to recruit more technical talent.
Why did Galil end up in the Twin Cities? “There are only three places you want to be if you’re in medical devices: Boston, San Francisco and the Twin Cities,” said Chief Technology Officer Bill Jacqmein. “The Twin Cities was the most cost-efficient.” Low rent at their industrial park site keeps expenses down — important since the company’s research and development expenses are keeping it in the red, at least for now. Even my jaded fellow journalists seemed impressed.
After that, it was back to downtown St. Paul and CoCo, which stands for Coworking and Collaborative Space. You’ve probably read a lot about this outfit, which has a companion site in Minneapolis. For those who haven’t, CoCo provides workspace for budding entrepreneurs, artists, small businesses and so on that need a better place to operate than their dens or the local coffee house. Supposedly, by hanging in the same space, they can glom on to each other and generate new ideas.
According to co-founder Kyle Coolbroth, similar enterprises — about 2,400 — have popped up all over the world. A monthly fee that starts at $50 for individuals entitles members to space in an exposed brick loft-style two-floor loft, WiFi, free printing and free coffee (though no barista). CoCo now has 400 members in both cities; I don’t know if that’s enough to support the venture, but it is marketing its services to corporations for off-site meetings and training.
From there it was across the street to the newly renovated Union Depot, which is an undeniably beautiful building with an elegant restaurant (Christos) occupying much of the waiting room. (Note to self: good place for son’s wedding reception). Inside I found about 200 members of the local branch of the Urban Land Institute, a kind of trade association for developers, for an event called “St. Paul on the Move.” Oh no! An hour and a half of propaganda — as if I already hadn’t absorbed plenty already.
A parade of officials — Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, Greater MSP Executive Director Michael Langley and Mayor Chris Coleman — expounded on (and bragged about) the new ball field for the Saints, the expansion of tpt, the previously mentioned Penfield, St. Paul’s diversity (100 languages are spoken in the schools), the Port Authority, the expansion of the Park Square Theater — well, you get the idea.
The final act was a panel composed of Cecile Bedor, director of economic development, Kyle Coolbroth of Coco, Lenny Russo, executive chef of Heartland, and Tom Whaley, attorney for the St. Paul Saints. Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, interrogated them about why they thought the city was wundebar. Answers: the historic center, the momentum, the new LRT, the ballpark (again!), the farmers market, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Kramer, casting about for questions from the audience and finding none, lit on me. Apparently mistaking me for a St. Paul property mogul, he said, “You in the green sweater, why do you think St. Paul is a good place?”
Initially, I responded with my usual — “ub, ub, ub” — but then decided to turn the tables. How about Macy’s closing, I asked. What will that do to downtown? And what about that defunct theater right in the middle of Park Square? Bedor said that she had “no indication that Macy’s was moving.” As for the theater, well, nothing doing yet.
As I drove away (and, by the way, MSP paid my $8 parking fee), I thought, these folks can’t fool me. I go to downtown St. Paul. At its best, it feels like a tiny chip of Chicago; at its worst, a sleepy backwater. And at night, it’s often deserted.
Still, I thought, still…it does seem as though there’s reason to hope.