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Dayton wows North Minneapolis economic summit with a simple promise

Gov. Mark Dayton looks on as law professor Nekima Levy-Pounds outlines bleak statistics on the challenges facing the North Minneapolis community.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Gov. Mark Dayton looks on as law professor Nekima Levy-Pounds outlines bleak statistics on the challenges facing the North Minneapolis community.

In the end, Gov. Mark Dayton wowed the crowd, not with his eloquence but, rather, with a simple promise: His staff and commissioners would respond to black leaders in nine days.

Don Samuels, a Minneapolis City Council member, said nothing the governor could have said would have been more powerful.

“Black folks are used to good sermons,” Samuels said. “He came, he stayed, he listened, he took notes. Then, he committed to a deadline. That was huge.”

In all respects, this economic summit in North Minneapolis late Wednesday afternoon was extraordinary, starting with the fact that Dayton was even there.

In simply showing up, Dayton became the first sitting Minnesota governor since Rudy Perpich to appear in that hugely depressed area of the city.

Dayton makes good on campaign promise
His presence was the result of a promise he’d made to Jerry McAfee, pastor at New Salem Baptist Church, even before Dayton had won DFL endorsement.

“We had a meeting at my church,” recalled McAfee. “He asked me before he left that meeting what he should do if he did win. I said, ‘Hold an economic summit.’ He said, ‘OK.’ ”

Dayton did win. But McAfee expected to hear nothing back. Over the years, any number of campaigning pols have expressed interest in North Minneapolis. After winning elections, they tend to disappear.

“But he [Dayton] ran into [Rep.] Bobby Joe Champion,” McAfee said. “He told Bobby Joe he’d promised to hold the summit and he wanted to make sure it got done.”

The meeting site, a room at a University of Minnesota research facility on Plymouth Avenue, was jammed with people, mostly black. There was seating for 200 but nearly twice as many people in attendance.

At the start of the program, Champion reminded the crowd that this meeting was about “business,” not the myriad other issues faced by those in the community.

A half-dozen presenters laid out the economic issues facing black Minnesotans as the governor and six of his commissioners listened.

The presentations were not pretty.

Nekima Levy-Pounds, a St. Thomas law professor, spoke of how she had moved to Minnesota in 2003 with high expectations.

“I heard it was a great place to live,” she said. “A land of equal opportunity. But I’ve found there are two Minnesotas — one white, one black. Separate but unequal.”

Statistics present bleak picture
She laid out the dismal stats.

Average income for a black working person in Minnesota, $26,930. For a white worker, $57,000. Unemployment among blacks, 20. 4 percent. Among whites, 6.6 percent. High school graduation rates among blacks, 43 percent. Among whites, 82 percent.

Poverty rate, 36 percent among blacks. Among whites, 7.4 percent. Home ownership among blacks, 32 percent. Among whites, 74 percent.

These disparities place Minnesota at the top of virtually every negative list in the nation.

“We have a problem,” she said in dramatic understatement.

Those numbers were the backdrop for the two hours of presentations and questions that followed.

The presenters were specific in the issues they have with the state, and they were specific in what could help businesses in north Minneapolis grow and put people in the city to work.

Former Judge Pam Alexander, who now heads the Council on Crime and Justice, spoke of the “legislative barriers” that prevent ex-offenders from finding jobs and housing.

Instead of being a state of ‘perpetual punishment,” she said, Minnesota needs to come up with a series of tax credits for businesses that hire ex-offenders. She also recommended the state do more job training for offenders and create other policies that would allow offenders who have served their sentences to re-enter society.

There were murmurs of approval.

Black business leaders pushed the governor to help them gain access to capital.

Even such mighty businesses as TLC Precision Wafer Technology, which produces “next-generation micro-chips” and sells them worldwide, has trouble gaining access to capital, according to the company’s founder, Tim Childs.

Childs spoke of how a friend urged him to move his business to Michigan or Louisiana, because those states are much more open to black-owned business than Minnesota.

“I want to stay here,” he said as the crowd cheered.

Tim Childs, founder of TLC Precision Wafer Technology: "I want to stay here."
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Tim Childs, founder of TLC Precision Wafer Technology: “I want to stay here.”

He said he has some manufacturing done in Taiwan.

“But we could do that in North Minneapolis,” he said. “I don’t like to send money across the sea.”

Without a “more cooperative” state government, he has little choice, he said.

Others spoke of the need for such state operations as the Department of Transportation to “unbundle” large contracts to give small businesses an opportunity to compete.

Audience skepticism evident
The lists of proposed solutions were long. The skepticism that Dayton would do anything ran deep.

Through it all, Dayton stood at the front of the room taking notes. Listening.

Then, it was the turn of those in the audience to make their appeals to the governor.

Again, skepticism.

“Where,” asked one woman, “will all the politicians be tomorrow?”

Another woman asked, “Whose job is it to correct these problems? Who’s accountable.”

Dayton broke his silence.

“That’s simple,” he said, “I’m accountable.”

Former City Council Member Natalie Lee Johnson was assigned the task of summing up the presentations and comments.

She turned her summation into an attack and a challenge.

“We’re two Minnesotas,” she said, facing the governor. “One Minnesota has a passport that says, ‘All access.’ The other Minnesota has a passport that’s stamped, ‘Access denied.’ ”

The governor should be accountable, she said. She turned to Dayton’s commissioners.

“Some of you were taking notes,” she said. “I hope the rest of you heard what was being said. You’re accountable, too.”

There were more murmurs of approval.

Then, finally, after two hours, it was Dayton’s turn to speak.

He thanked people for coming, thanked them for the patience they’d shown and then he made his promise.

He assigned Micah Hines, an assistant chief of staff, to work with his commissioners.

“We’ll respond in writing by a week from Friday — that’s nine days from now,” he said.

Those responses, he promised, will be specific about what state government can do NOW to act on issues raised during the summit.

“We’ll respond to what we can do by executive order, through legislation and initiative,” he said. “We’ll move forward, and we’ll move forward together.”

That’s all he said.

But it was stunning to the audience — and, presumably, the commissioners as well.

A promise and a quick deadline
A response — in nine days.

Louis King, who heads Summit Academy in North Minneapolis, was impressed. This was the message the audience needed to hear. A promise of action and a tight deadline.

“We can’t afford another series of meetings,” said King. “We’ve been analyzed to death.”

Samuels, standing outside the meeting hall, kept thinking about what he’d just heard.

“We [the people assembled] have become very cynical,” he said. “I think most of us were ready to go home and just throw up our hands. We’ve heard it all before. But he gave us a commitment.”

At first, the crowd responded with silence. What had they just heard?

Then, there was applause. And long after making his promise, Dayton stayed and shook hands.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Cecil North on 03/31/2011 - 09:39 am.

    Great. Now, I’m looking forward to our “pro-jobs”, “pro-business” legislature backing up our Governor with initiatives that help real workers and real job creators in N. Minneapolis, not just the Koch bros and their friends in the ‘burbs.

  2. Submitted by myles spicer on 03/31/2011 - 10:23 am.

    We are fortunate to have Dayton as our governor. Not only is he working to revise the “no tax” pledge of our former governor; but he is a strong counter-balance to the now conservative legislature. To date, he has acted responsibly and aggressively to make Minnesota better.

  3. Submitted by Lora Jones on 03/31/2011 - 10:56 am.

    Cecil, I’m pretty sure that’s why Dayton specified both executive actions he can take and legislation he can propose. I’d like to think there are some things that can be done without going through the legislature, which, as you said, is bound to block anything that doesn’t pander to Waltons and Kochs. Sounds like we’ll all know if and what’s possible a week from tomorrow.

  4. Submitted by Ben Granley on 03/31/2011 - 11:24 am.

    Cecil what in the world is a “real worker” or a “real job creator”? Why would someone in a suburb be any better or worse at working or creating a job as your comment implies?

    Cost of labor, cost of land, local regulations, and city spending are just a few reasons out of the many that goes into the equation. The best thing the government can do is LESS.

    The government in our cities and state have been slowly doing things that act as a dis-incentive to economic growth and job creation. Our state is ranked 43rd out of 50 for a business tax climate. http://www.taxfoundation.org/research/topic/37.html

    People start businesses to earn a return on an investment. The easier it is to earn a return, the MORE people that will want to do it.

    When I read stories about local cities giving fines for improper permitting to kids for having lemonade stands this sends a signal of fear. Fear of not getting enough of the right permits, fear of the time involved, fear of unknown fines for doing something wrong, and fear of a mistake absorbing much needed money in the initial phase of my start up. This is one example but when there are multiple examples of this on a daily basis I would rather invest my money for in a less risky venture for a smaller return like large cap stocks, bonds, etc…

    The bottom line is that our government has done things for years, with good intentions, to alleviate problems that arise. That is the seen. There is always an unseen that is a result of governments action. No one is talking about the unseen effects of these decisions and behaviors.

    Lastly we are in big trouble if all that it takes to impress us is a timely response from government. Our expectations of what they really do for us have been so eroded that just getting an answer is the story. That is really disheartening.

  5. Submitted by David Peterson on 03/31/2011 - 11:34 am.

    Great, North has so much potential as a community and just needs to resources to live up to it. Unfortunately most of the public, myself included, has many deep stereotypes of the NoMi community. The improvement is as much about image and cultural change as it is about business initiative.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/31/2011 - 11:39 am.

    Charlie Brown is lining up to kick that football. This time for sure.

  7. Submitted by B Maginnis on 03/31/2011 - 11:50 am.

    This should be interesting.

  8. Submitted by Alicia DeMatteo on 03/31/2011 - 01:00 pm.

    It’s amazing what can happen when your governor isn’t merely working to add a line to his resume and become his party’s poster child.

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/31/2011 - 08:32 pm.

    For a change, I agree with Mr. Maginnis, though perhaps not for the same reasons. This should be interesting.

  10. Submitted by Patrick Wells on 03/31/2011 - 11:07 pm.

    Mark Dayton will become an iconic Minnesota leader in the tradition of Hubert Humphrey. Thank God for Mark Dayton.

  11. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 04/01/2011 - 08:05 am.

    Ben Granely,

    Forbes Magazine rates Minnesota as having the 15th best business climate in the country. You can win the race to the bottom on taxes, but it will ruin all the things that go into a good business climate, other than taxes.

    Again Ben, when taking a holistic view, a logical view, and a historical view, Minnesota ranks 15th on business climate. Not 43rd. That is simplistic.

    http://www.forbes.com/2010/10/13/best-states-for-business-business-beltway-best-states-table.html

  12. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 04/01/2011 - 08:08 am.

    David,
    Who’s culture do we have to change, theirs or ours?

  13. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/01/2011 - 09:07 am.

    Let’s see…Dayton will come up with a “community redevelopment program for the collective good of the residents that will promote economic redistribution in order to revitalize and put people in harmony in an environmentally sustainable way.”

    Which means – “hold on to your wallet, Dayton is coming after it – again.”

  14. Submitted by Chris Berry on 04/01/2011 - 11:01 am.

    Ben,

    Looking at the business rankings from the Tax Foundation, I noticed the economic powerhouses of Nevada, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina rank 4, 19, 21, and 24. When I look at unemployment rates for those fine states, they’re 50th, 33rd, and tied for 42nd, respectively (http://www.bls.gov/web/laus/laumstrk.htm).

    The Tax Foundation doesn’t seem to be making a compelling argument about where to open or operate a business.

  15. Submitted by David Peterson on 04/01/2011 - 11:19 am.

    @Alec: I realize I wasn’t clear so that is a good question. I think it would be about changing the culture of violent crimes in North while also changing the Twin Cities cultural stereotype of North. In the end, this comes down to a racial issue because North is the heart of the African-American/Black population in Minneapolis. The differences in employment rate, poverty and education truly shocked me. More business wealth in the community will certainly help, but solving this problem won’t be a one year turn-around but span generations. So back to the original question – both. The “our” (Twin Cities residents) perception needs change, but the North community will also need some great leadership and positive role models as well as accountability that resources being spent in the community are achieving results and reducing these truly startling quality of life gaps.

  16. Submitted by Ben Granley on 04/01/2011 - 04:22 pm.

    Guys,

    If taxes were the only factor that a business used to determine where to locate, it would be an easy choice. My point is there are many things our local governments have done to erode the business climate, taxes/spending can be one of them.

  17. Submitted by Ben Granley on 04/01/2011 - 04:37 pm.

    Chris,

    The study by the Tax Foundation is study on the tax climate, not unemployment rates or where to open a business.

    At some point I think we need to be honest with ourselves. Are you ok with the government, at the federal, state, and local level taking over 50% of the earnings off of your business? If you add all of the taxes up, there is a lot to account for. You keep less than you give up in taxes. Is everyone really alright with that? Do you actually own a business and have to do that now?

    Something in my gut tells me something is wrong with this.

  18. Submitted by Fritz Dahmus on 04/02/2011 - 08:15 am.

    I’m a little late to the party…but I completely agree with Ben Granley on the lack of a decent business climate here in Minnesota AND also in the US (see 60 minutes piece from last Sunday on corporate tax rates and the Irish Double).

    Even the North Minneapolis black business owner, Mr. Childs, at the conference agrees with Ben! Read his quote…see what he is asking for.

    Here is his qoute from the story;

    “Tim Childs, founder of TLC Precision Wafer Technology: “I want to stay here.”

    He said he has some manufacturing done in Taiwan.

    “But we could do that in North Minneapolis,” he said. “I don’t like to send money across the sea.”

    Without a “more cooperative” state government, he has little choice, he said.”

  19. Submitted by William Pappas on 04/02/2011 - 08:25 am.

    Mr. Granley your “business tax rating” is one of the last things business considers when choosing Minnesota for relocation. Our labor force is one of the hardest working, qualified and educated in the country. The average education of our workers is second to none through the US. That is what counts. Anyone who has a business that works in other parts of the country understand this. Your single minded focus on tax cuts actually works to inhibit a good business climate. The real problem for the black community is just what they have portrayed: a different set of realities and challenges exist for people of color, particularly African Americans. A high tax rate is almost irrelelvant to this conversation.

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