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Speech by Curt Johnson to visiting Denver delegation

Sea Change Restaurant/Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis

First time here for anyone? On a clear day you would have noticed the geography difference right away. Though southeastern Minnesota, beyond Rochester, resembles arboreal mountainous areas of Europe and the north shore of Lake Superior with its jagged rock cliffs reminds people of the shore of Maine – the metro area mixes flat and rolling. No mountains in sight. Instead you’ll find three major rivers and a couple hundred lakes in the urbanized area. The state has about 15,000 lakes of significant size and more shoreline than the entire U.S. west coast. Take the lakes out of Minnesota and you have, well, Iowa.

You’ll hear people tell you we are first in some things, including some where we make second seem like first – second to Portland in the percentage who bike to work; second to New York in live theater. We’re top of the list in numbers of golfers per capita (a worshipful band engaged in a five-month annual frenzy); per capita number of boats, and horses. This is the home of the nation’s first all indoor mall (1956) and, since 1992, its largest, the MOA.

We’re also first as the new American home for Somalis. And for a long time we’ve hosted the largest concentration of Chinese university students. We’re praying that this will pay off somehow, though more of us are encouraging our grandchildren to study Mandarin.

Sometimes we are first but don’t stick with it. There was a time a half century ago when the fastest computers in the world were within a few miles of where you’re sitting. Heart surgery pioneered at the university medical school. I’ve grown to see this as a cultural acquiescence, a certain reticence about standing out too much. So you are entitled to kid us about breeding only vice presidents; finishing second in the Super Bowl – three times. . . or is it four?

Beyond our famous politicians, we have a respectable share of other name-droppers: from the Coen brothers to Garrison Keillor, Bob Dylan to Diablo Cody. Tom Friedman. Jessica Lange, Josh Harnett. Even Jesse Ventura – who, like Wagner’s music, was better than he sounded.

Our politics are not clearly red or blue, more a perplexing purple.

If you were staying longer, we’d need to provide you a manual on interpreting the language. [You ask one of us how we’re doing, you’ll likely hear “not bad.” That means we’re having a really terrific day. Or if you’re at someone’s home and the afternoon’s leaking into evening, you’ll nearly always find your host suggesting you might stay for dinner. We’ll say, “Oh, I should go.” “Come on, one more won’t be a problem.” “Sure you have enough?” In that dialogue, the host is saying, “Jeez, I thought this would be done hours ago; guess I have to invite them to stay.” You’re thinking: I could eat the sofa about now.] Watch out for understatement. Word objects are larger than they appear.

We used to have more than two dozen Fortune 500 company headquarters here; mergers have eroded the number. The losses that hurt our psyche were seeing Honeywell do a merger with Allied Signal and take off to New Jersey. And then one of our large banks, Norwest, literally bought Wells Fargo, and moved the senior executive team to San Francisco (though much of Wells is run from here and there are more employees today than before). We’re down to 19 now – many with names you’d know like General Mills, Target, Best Buy, Medtronic, 3M, Cargill (private, but belongs on the list), U.S. Bank, Xcel Energy, United Health Care – and that’s 9 times what a metro with only three million people would normally have.

The defining character of this place is winter. By the numbers only Siberia has colder average temperatures. The upside, at least compared to both east and west coast: it’s a ‘cold sunbelt.’ If it’s not snowing, the sun’s probably shining, even if it’s 10 below. The only really bad thing about it is it hangs around too long, like those houseguests I just caricatured who should know to go home.

What made Minnesota different for the last half century was a penchant for innovation. Not just people like Earl Bakken, building the first pacemaker in his garage; or Art Fry who thought up Post-it Notes because his church choir needed page markers and glue was too permanent — but policy innovation.

This is where the idea for managed care came, and way back in 1993 Minnesota passed its own ‘public option,’ the notion now both coveted and reviled in today’s health care debate. This was under the leadership of a Republican governor. We have not managed a major bi-partisan policy achievement since. MinnesotaCare offers an income-adjusted program for people too poor to get insurance on their own but too well off to qualify for Medicaid. It’s paid for by a 2% tax on health services. Providers found that getting people into the system reduced uncompensated care costs more than enough to offset the tax.

This is where the 5% corporate giving program started and is still going strong. Giving is infectious here; our United Way is always near the top of the charts. We sort of invented regional government, which has a small set of real teeth in determining where growth can go. The Metro Council can bite better than it can chew. We’re almost unique in having a system to share property tax base. You’ll hear more later about the Metro Council.

The notion of public choice of schools got its jumpstart here in the mid-80s; the idea for chartering schools in the late 80s; the start of teachers forming coops to run schools in the mid-90s.

We had an Interstate bridge fall down in 2007, reminding us of something we don’t do well: keep up on infrastructure. We’ve got a $50 billion backlog on maintaining our roads and streets; at least $100 million challenge to clean up endangered lakes and streams; and when it comes to building an alternative transportation system, we have a small dedicated revenue stream now, but mostly we have an advanced case of Denver-envy. We’ve got a large, under-funded bus system, one light rail line – from the Mall of America to downtown Minneapolis; another in the making, a couple of bus rapid transit corridors planned, and a commuter train headed half way to St Cloud opening this fall. Nowhere near a system yet. It’ll take us 40 years to do what you’ll do in 10. We choose to spend more on social welfare and less on physical things.

Let me conclude with a point about leadership. We had a few great decades in which senior business leaders found ways to generate ideas in the public interest here, and found common ground with local and state government leaders. There wasn’t a formal program, no separate institution, just a climate of collaboration, a will to solve problems, to stay ahead of the curve. We built up a robust non-profit sector with more than 3000 organizations.

Then, somewhere in the 90s we got the notion that we were rich. The arrangements withered. The people in charge changed. Business retreated, in part because business got to be a tougher drill, with everything internationalized. But also, as we thought ourselves rich, we returned to a pattern of beating up on business. The result is we’ve been stuck in a pattern where nothing big is likely unless a governor pushes it; so every four years we roll the leadership dice. Meanwhile there are disquieting trends. Our regional economy has lagged the national numbers – in personal income growth and the job creation rate. Our graduation rates from high school and college are trending down. We always rank near the top in the annual Kids Count survey, but with poverty numbers growing. Our schools get scores that beat most of America but we have a huge gap between white students and others.. Most of our natural population growth is coming in demographic groups that traditionally have not done well in school. The University of Minnesota, more than any other institution, is at the heart of most of Minnesota’s historic economic success; today we treat it like just another special interest, pleading for money and not getting much.

We go to local conferences in which the underlying themes suggest Minnesota’s got a problem and gosh, somebody ought to do something about it. We see how good we have become at admiring our problems. We travel to other regions to see what we didn’t do. We had it so good for so long that most people cannot imagine anything really terrible happening here. We don’t want to be asked to change or sacrifice. Sure we’ve built this new Guthrie, a new central library, a new Walker Art Center and a stunning new wing to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; and, like you, we’re replacing sports stadiums, the temples of our secular religion. But when it comes to civic audacity, compared to Denver, we look like timid folk. We’re better at being ambivalent.

The good news: It’s still a great place to live. When we return from trips, getting back here restores our center, feels good, like getting the ski boots off at the end of the day. The business community formed an alliance to work on civic challenges about five years ago; something called the Itasca Project. The mayors of three dozen of our cities have formed a voluntary council to collaborate on regional issues. The leaders of our largest foundations are talking together again and considering how to use their resources to forge a formula for a more competitive and sustainable region that fits this century. We don’t know yet whether this will inaugurate a new chapter in our civic history, but the rough drafts are promising.

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