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Minneapolis mayoral candidate Gary Schiff Q-A: ‘Every neighborhood should make progress’

“We need to be the city that creates a sustainable local economy that lifts people up, so that small businesses grow and neighborhoods grow stronger.”

Gary Schiff was first elected to the City Council in 2001 from Ward 9, which is south and east of downtown.
MinnPost photo by Karen Boros

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of interviews with seven candidates for Minneapolis mayor. Only those who have filed with the Hennepin County Elections Department to form a campaign finance committee have been interviewed. The interviews will run in alphabetical order. At the bottom of this article, you can find a short list of high-profile supporters (where provided by the candidate).


Gary Schiff was first elected to the City Council in 2001 from Ward 9, which is south and east of downtown.

Prior to his election, he co-authored a City Charter amendment that requires a public referendum on any proposal for a professional sports facility involving more than $10 million in public funding. The charter amendment was approved by 68 percent of voters.

Schiff, 41, chairs the Zoning and Planning Committee and is a member of the Planning Commission.

In this series of edited interviews, mayoral candidates were asked to introduce themselves to voters and respond to some basic questions.

MinnPost: Why would you leave your leadership role on the City Council to run for mayor of Minneapolis?

Gary Schiff: I believe that in America’s most progressive city, every neighborhood should make progress.

Corporate profits are at an all-time high; workers wages, as a percentage of the Gross National Product, are at an all-time low. We need to be the city that creates a sustainable local economy that lifts people up, so that small businesses grow and neighborhoods grow stronger.

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The mayor can lead reform of red tape that keeps small businesses from taking off and can also help create jobs.

One of the proposals I’m making is that the city require contractors to employ people who live in the city of Minneapolis. I believe that corporate welfare is an inefficient way to create jobs.

MP: What do you mean by corporate welfare?

GS: I mean the giving of large sums of public dollars to companies in order to build or expand.

We [Minneapolis] spend every year about $80 million repairing and maintaining neighborhood infrastructure: roads, streets, sewers, fire stations and police stations. None of those contractors are obligated to hire anybody who lives in Minneapolis.

Last summer, I got my sidewalks replaced in front of my house. A company from Le Sueur, Minn, got the contract. Four guys jump out of the truck, jackhammer my sidewalk, a couple of hours later the new cement is laid and I get handed the bill. They drive back to Le Sueur.

My neighbor Joe is a contractor who can’t find steady work.

I’ve been a leader on the Council in pushing for ZIP code hiring requirements when the city finances economic redevelopment projects, but there is so much more we can do, that we need to do in all of our city spending.

Whether it’s $10 million in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund or the $80 million in capital infrastructure that we make. We need to make sure our spending is generating jobs for city residents.

I think we can be the city known for entrepreneurs. We can be the city that demonstrates a local sustainable economy. That contrasts with a global economy that is driving wages down and is increasing the poverty gaps between the metro area and the urban core.

MP: Let me make sure I understand this. If I am a developer getting city subsidies or a contractor with a job in Minneapolis, I am required to hire some city residents?

GS: In my proposal, we set a goal of one out of every four workers. For example, Children’s Hospital, a couple of years ago, got access to city bonding to expand their campus to both sides of Chicago Avenue. A great project.

I delayed issuance of the bonds until Children’s Hospital signed a contract agreeing to specific goals of giving jobs to people in the ZIP codes around Phillips and the central neighborhoods, so their private investment, with the city’s help, would create jobs for people who live in those neighborhoods.

I heard from many people in my ward: “Thank you, I got a job on that project.”

That was the first time the city had ever added ZIP code hiring requirements to a bond issuance in exchange for financing a project.

Often, we start talking about job creation to justify large corporate welfare projects, but there is small-scale spending that can be leveraged to increase employment, to encourage contracting offices to locate in Minneapolis and to encourage the people who live here.

That’s why I am running for mayor — to build a sustainable local economy that decreases poverty, that increases employment options and helps build wealth.

We have an ongoing problem with multi-generational poverty in our city. The disparities between North Minneapolis and the rest of our city are a nationally know embarrassment for Minneapolis. We can do better.

We can be a city that breaks the cycle of poverty, so every child has an opportunity. We can be the city that gives encouragement and connects our job training programs with the hiring that happens as a result of our spending.

These are things that one City Council member can’t accomplish, that the next mayor of Minneapolis working with the City Council, with job training nonprofits, with the state of Minnesota, can achieve.

MP: We’ve been focused here on construction jobs. What about light manufacturing? What about highly skilled jobs?

GS: The fastest-growing sectors right now in the Minneapolis economy include health care, driven by home-based health care, and technology jobs. Those are living-wage-plus jobs.

Anytime we create a job, it is not in a vacuum. There is a secondary job created with it.

Think of the advertising firm that lives because Target hires them and then think about the photographers who get jobs because of the advertising firm that Target hires.

Every job in our city has a ripple effect in the economy. If we focus our investment in neighborhoods to an investment in the people who live in the neighborhoods, we will create ripple effects throughout our local economy.

Instead of that company from Le Sueur getting the contract, maybe the company from Le Sueur will have to hire someone from Minneapolis in exchange for the contract.

So, of the four guys who jump off the truck, maybe one of them will be a city resident who gets a job as a result of the money that’s being spent to repair our sidewalks.

This doesn’t require subsidies to companies, this doesn’t increase the city budget. All we have to do is leverage the spending we already do.

I’ve been out talking today to companies that have city contracts. I asked them how this requirement would affect their business. I talked to MRI, which has the contract for picking up waste and recycling it in the city of Minneapolis.

I asked them how many of their employees live in Minneapolis today. They said, “About 50 percent.’  That’s because they’re located here. They’re already doing it.

So it can be done, and it can be done through out all of the contracts the city offers.

MP: I know the football stadium is not your favorite topic. But now that it has been approved, now that it is coming to downtown, how do you as mayor make sure the area around the stadium is developed?  What do you want to attract to that area?

GS: The housing market is growing the fastest in downtown Minneapolis. We now have two market-rate apartment buildings going up that, when finished, will each pay about $1.5 to $1.7 million annually in property taxes. So we are doing something right. We have a tremendous asset that attracts people who want to live in the city of Minneapolis.

Where the market is broken is where we should focus our attention. It’s broken in North Minneapolis. It’s broken in neighborhoods where there is a concentration of people who live below the federal poverty line. It’s broken in Phillips, where one out of three children grow up in poverty. I think that’s what government should be focused on.

The stadium is the subsidy. We will spend $890 million of tax dollars as contributions from city taxpayers toward the stadium. [That figure represents the city share as required in stadium legislation, plus the additional cost of selling 30-year bonds and potential payments to the Vikings if the downtown sales tax revenue grows at specified levels.] That is the subsidy that will attract private investors. To continue the subsidies all around the stadium, I think, is an inefficient way to stimulate the economy.

The small businesses in this city create more jobs and attract more private investment than these really big projects that we will spend decades paying for, only to find out when we’re done that it’s time to refinance the facility all over again.

That’s the loop we are constantly in with the Target Center and the Convention Center. Those are buildings that never pay for themselves and are never paid for and need constant reinvestment to retain their quality.

I, as mayor, would focus on small-business growth. I would focus on making it easier for entrepreneurs. I would simplify rules that don’t make sense, and I would focus on investing in neighborhoods where the market doesn’t work — housing investment and job creation specifically.

MP: You would count on the stadium itself to attract investors while you concentrate on small business and neighborhoods? Do you risk getting another stadium, like the Dome, surrounded by surface parking?

GS: Look at stadiums across the country. Stadiums with eight home games a year aren’t known for attracting development. That’s the cost-benefit ratio you have to analyze before you spend $890 million on a stadium. That’s something those who voted for it had to consider when they voted.

Baseball parks have a better track record, with 81 games a year, of attracting housing and development than football stadiums because of the limited use.

MP: So your view is the area around the football stadium will have to attract development on its own?

GS: I think the architecture firm will create a great product, a great stadium that’s a great experience for fans, that will have more eyes out to the community than the Metrodome does. I think it will work better than the last stadium did for interacting with the neighborhood.

But the stadium is the subsidy, and now it’s up to those who championed it to continue to invest around it.

MP: Change of topics here. The Southwest Light Rail line is slated to come through Minneapolis on the narrow strip of land between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. The position adopted by the City Council and the mayor opposes that route if it were to include both freight trains and light rail. St. Louis Park doesn’t want the freight trains. Where are you on this issue?

GS: I’m in favor. Let’s get it done. Like the light rail through the University area, this will take time to work itself out. There are overlapping jurisdictions between the railroads and the county that owns the corridor.

It’s not the city’s role at this point to settle those disputes. Our role is to make sure the land use planning is ready, so when the trains start, we have the land use designations along the station areas that are conducive for the development we want to see.

Our job is to make sure the funding is provided through the region and the state, so we get the federal money to get the project through.

But the right-of-way issues, every one of these projects has right-of-way issues at some point. It’s not a stumbling block for the project.

MP: The committee working on plans for remodeling the Target Center seems stalled. What’s going on there?

GS: It ties back to the Vikings stadium. We now know that the pull-tabs aren’t bringing in the revenue needed to pay the debt on the bonds and the Legislature is going to have to fill these holes in the financing plan before construction can start.

The big-picture failure in all the financing discussions about the Vikings Stadium was the failure to come up with a regional solution.

Minneapolis and St. Paul is the only metro area that is trying to pay for one facility for the NBA, one facility for the NFL and one facility for the NHL.

Everybody else has mixed-use or multiple-use arenas. I think, now that there’s new leadership at the Capitol, that discussion about having a regional entity to fund all three really needs to happen. As mayor, that’s what I am going to champion because most NFL stadiums are paid for by everyone is the state.

Here we have an NFL stadium that’s just paid for by Minneapolis sales taxpayers and gamblers in the metro area. I think the leadership Minneapolis needs to exert is one that recognizes that these three facilities are essential for the vitality of the region, but they need an equitable source of funding.

MP: The last two Minneapolis budgets have been pretty bare-bones. Property taxes have gone up with those budgets but not with the large increases that hit homeowners in previous years. Where are you on property taxes?

GS: I’ve voted for 12 balanced budgets that put an emphasis on paying down our debt, so we could regain our AAA bond rating. Now that we’ve done that, the needs that we have, first and foremost, are rebuilding our police and fire departments so they have the staffing, training and equipment they need to provide public safety in every neighborhood.

We’ve also come to the end of double-digit and 8 percent property tax increases. So many homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, so many homeowners have experienced wage stagnation and the recession has hit Minneapolis neighborhoods very hard.

The neighborhoods I have represented are not wealthy neighborhoods. I’ve represented working-class neighborhoods where increases in property tax directly connect to loss of home ownership.

I’m not going to support big property-tax increases because I recognize that property taxes are regressive. They hurt out homeownership goals.

The city needs to grow, sustainably, helping small businesses grow. Let’s expand our tax base by keeping the housing investments in the city of Minneapolis. We can’t use homeowners as a piggy bank or an ATM to finance non-essentials.

MP: So where do you get the money to invest in public safety?

GS: Forty percent of the Police Department and Fire Department will be retiring in the next decade. As people retire at the end of 30 years, it costs a lot less to hire a new recruit at the beginning of their service.

When 10 people retire, you basically end up with money to hire and train 30 people.

MP: We have a new police chief, Janee Harteau, and a new fire chief, John Fruetel. What do you think of those two department heads?

GS: They have a contract. They stay. They have a three-year appointment, so the outcome of the mayor’s race doesn’t affect the leadership in the Fire Department or the Police Department.

MP: So they both have a solid three-year contract, and you’re not going to fire them?

GS: Can’t — they have a contract. Well, for just cause you could, but not just on a whim because you want to bring in somebody else. That’s the mistake Rybak made when he came in. He thought he could fire Bob Olson and bring in his own police chief.

I was a member of the council who said, “No, you can’t.”  You can buy them out — which is a waste if they’re doing a good job, but they don’t serve at the pleasure of the mayor.

MP: What to we do about the achievement gap in our schools where children of color test lower than white children?

GS: First is to recognize the role of the mayor and the role of the public school administration. I won’t be a mayor who steps into union negotiations or attacks the union for political gain. I don’t think that solves problems in classrooms.

We have a lack of collaboration between local units of government, and that’s what I would address as mayor. Take, for example, the 20 percent of public school students who have experienced homelessness in the past year or are highly mobile.

We know every time a child switches schools that their learning experience gets set back. They lose progress in test scores.

Whose problem is that to solve?  Is it the city’s fault because we build affordable housing and we’re not building enough affordable housing for families with children?

Is it the School Board’s fault because they ended busing and the move to neighborhood schools means that when the mother loses a lease in an affordable apartment and they have to move across town and her son or daughter has to start in a new school?

Or is it the county’s problem because they operate the homeless shelters and have case workers?

I think the answer is that all three are not working together on behalf of our youth. As mayor, I would call for an annual public report, a report card, on the state of our youth to highlight the gaps and to demonstrate whether government is working.

My district has so many children in poverty, who don’t get to vote at the elections, and it’s very easy for politicians to ignore children who can’t vote.

But, as a city, if we don’t address the growing disparities among our youth, we threaten our own economic security for the next generation.

Employers are very concerned about not having a workforce that is skilled enough. I think creating a sustainable local economy is the same discussion as shrinking the disparities, because if parents don’t have the opportunity to have a living-wage job, then their child will never have the ability to break the cycle of poverty.

As mayor, that’s what I will be focusing on — ending multi-generational poverty by creating a local sustainable economy that allows small businesses to grow and creates jobs for the people who live in Minneapolis.

MP: North Minneapolis continues to struggle. What do you do about that?

GS: Everything I’ve been talking about, creating jobs and helping small businesses grow, that is the solution to poverty in any community, and that is the approach I would take to poverty in any community.

One of the first votes I lost on the City Council 12 years ago was the elimination of the Housing Redevelopment Authority. This was a program that invested in low-income neighborhoods to encourage home ownership and encourage re-investment in old homes.

I would absolutely work with the council to bring back the Housing Redevelopment Authority so that we have the tools to invest in neighborhood housing programs.

The programs that the Neighborhood Revitalization Programs partnered with the city on were very successful, very popular, and those were all done away with.

The fact is you can’t get a bank loan to fix up your house if you’re underwater on your mortgage. So, with the number of vacant lots that are growing in North Minneapolis, with the end of the federal programs that paid for acquisition and demolition of those homes, the city no longer has a local source of funding to invest in neighborhoods.

We must absolutely find the resources so every neighborhood makes progress.

Schiff’s high-profile supporters

They include state Rep. Karen Clark; Mohamud Noor, former state Senate candidate; Tracy Singleton, owner of Birchwood Cafe; Kim Bartman, owner of Bryant-Lake Bowl; and Minneapolis Fire Fighters, Local 82.