Chris Coleman’s St. Paul: A city with a scene

Photo by Bill Kelley
St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman speaks with The Line editor Jon Spayde.

With downtown St. Paul becoming livelier by the week thanks to new bars and restaurants, and major civic art initiatives like Irrigate giving the city a new public-art profile, we thought it was high time we checked in with the mayor on whose watch these developments are occuring — a mayor for whom art and music aren’t optional in urban development.

The Line

Joining His Honor and The Lines managing editor, Jon Spayde, in the conference room in Coleman’s City Hall office, was Joe Spencer, the former actor and dancer who is the city’s director of arts and culture, and who has played a major role in fostering the Saintly City’s burgeoning coolness.


The Line: Mr. Mayor, let’s start with Irrigate, the multi-site, multi-artist project along the Central Corridor route. Why did the city get involved?

Chris Coleman: We really saw this opportunity to provide art not as an afterthought, but to really integrate everything from the beginning of the construction of the line, to work with artists who live in the neighborhood, give them some real opportunities to work small projects, big projects, all kinds of things. The idea is that when you are creating a transportation structure, you are also creating a real place.

The Line: Placemaking.

Chris Coleman: I always try to avoid those buzzwords, though it’s hard to. What you are trying to do is create a whole strip in the heart of the city that becomes a central destination becomes a place where people want to walk, that feels navigable, that businesses can thrive in, where people want to live.

The Line: How does art, as art, contribute to that sense of place?

Chris Coleman: I think art brings a sense of exploration and a sense of care. When you go through an area, it’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, that’s a pretty building’; but when you find those unique pieces of art, you say, this is a community that cares about itself.

Making a scene

There’s our sidewalk poetry project  without any additional effort or additional cost, as we’re building and replacing sidewalks, we make them places where people really want to walk. People become curious about what poem might be on the next block. I’m not sure how many we have now …

Joe Spencer: Approaching thousands! (Laughter) Yeah, it’s been going on for a few years now, and when you have an interaction with pieces like that, you really get the sense that there are people in the neighborhood who care deeply, are passionate, and it makes the place feel special.

Joe Spencer
Photo by Bill Kelley
Joe Spencer is St. Paul’s director of arts and culture.
 

Chris Coleman: Whether it’s a poem or a piece of artwork on site, you pause for a moment. You’re no longer just passing through. You’re pausing to take everything in; you might actually talk to someone else who has stopped to look at the work of art. You start making connections — and you build a community that way.

The Line: Joe, you have been working with the mayor on these issues since he took office.

Joe Spencer: The mayor had a really clear and specific vision for driving vitality and street life for this city, and it was about getting people out and creating a scene. A place where, when you walk down the street, in the mayor’s words, “you can feel the pulse” of the city.

When we looked at our strengths and weaknesses — we did an arts economic impact study — we found that our strengths were with seniors, with our fine arts institutions, and with families with kids, with our museum and theater offerings.

So we concentrated on supporting the kinds of artists and creative people that are going to bring that younger crowd out. We focused a lot, and continue to, on live music and the more adventurous things that are going to build that buzz. You see it at work in Lowertown. When we filled Mears Park with musicians and performing artists on a regular basis, we sort of built a market; and you see the effect in all the new bars and restaurants that have popped up around there. To me that creates a place, when you make these special experiences, whether it’s on the sidewalk in the form of a poem or going out to see .

Chris Coleman: Delfeayo Marsalis in Mears Park! Not a bad deal.

The arts as civic mortar

The Line: It’s true that St. Paul has long had a reputation as, well, being in need of some excitement.

Chris Coleman: There’s no question that St. Paul is a fundamentally different place than it was 10 years ago. I won’t say that the arts and cultural elements were solely responsible for that, but they were the mortar that held the bricks together. We had built housing, we had built the public spaces, we were in the process of building a light rail line, but what glues all those things together is that there are actual reasons for people to come and be a part of what’s happening down there.

It’s the music and the dancing in Rice Park on Thursday nights, which the Ordway and others have been part of. It’s the Ordway itself, which serves not just as the theater space for touring shows, but for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Opera, the Schubert Club. An amazing facility that draws thousands, if not millions, of people to downtown St. Paul.

That’s why people go to cities — you don’t go because another chain restaurant has just opened. You go to New Orleans for jazz. You go to Nashville for the honky-tonks. You go to Austin for Sixth Street. I’ve never heard anybody say, “Wow, I really loved that chain sports bar in Austin.”

Peter Tosh and The Boss

The Line: Mr. Mayor, was there a catalytic experience or series of experiences that you had that convinced you to go this route?

Chris Coleman: I’ve always loved music. The previous mayor, Randy Kelly, had an excellent cultural director, Gayle Ober. She did a wonderful job with her focus, which was on supporting the arts organizations surrounding the Ordway. I wanted to take the work she had done and move it toward more of a pop scene —

The Line: For that younger demo.

Chris Coleman: For the middle-aged-white-guy demo too! If you ask me, who’s your favorite artist, well, I’m 50 years old and I’m white! Who do you think? Springsteen! Who else is there? (Laughter)

The point is though, that a wonderful thing about St. Paul is that it has the whole gamut, from the SPCO to Station 4, and everything in between.

I don’t know if there was a transformative moment, but I remember being down on Harriet Island when I was in college and seeing some of the shows at Riverfest, which were some of my most memorable moments in St. Paul. Going to concerts in the old Civic Center and seeing some guy named Peter Tosh opening for the Rolling Stones. It speaks to me; I have a brother, Brendan, who’s a musician, and he I think he’s always understood the blending of music, culture, and political thought.

The hole at the end of the list

When we put together the initial strategic plan for the city, we sat down for a retreat one day with all the department directors to discuss the usual things, public safety, infrastructure, education and at the end of that list there was a hole. I said, we have nothing on here that’s what I define as the “Jimmy the Greek intangible” the soul of the city. And that’s where we developed these things as a specific agenda and a specific strategy.

You look at this beautiful location that we have … I think of it from the standpoint of the River’s Edge Festival back in June looking out over that stage, you were seeing one of the most beautiful urban areas in the country, and now it’s filled with people, and fantastic musicians, Tool and Dave Matthews, and a whole host of other acts, and you feel, this is what it’s all about to blend this incredible place with incredible opportunities to go out and experience art and music.

But budgets are tight …

The Line: It can be argued that in an era of very tight municipal budgets, the arts are amenities that are nice to have, but they need to yield to more basic issues.

Chris Coleman: I think it’s the exact opposite. Particularly when you are in an economically challenged time, you have to have a competitive advantage, to try to attract companies, to try to attract residents who want to come and work in your community. When you’re 22 and coming out of college, and you can go anywhere in the world to work, why would you come to the city of St. Paul? You’d come because it’s vibrant, it’s fun, it’s a great place to be.

If you don’t invest in these kinds of things, you stagnate or you go backwards, and the economy hits you ten times harder than it would otherwise.

Joe Spencer: This is an economy in which the young talent, the young entrepreneurs, the people who are not just the bedrock of the economy tomorrow, but are important today they can move and live anywhere they want. And they’re choosing cities that have the kind of amenities and lifestyle and cool things that they want. So we have to do these things in order to attract them; it’s not just an abstraction.

The mayor tells a great story about persuading Cray to move into Saint Paul …

Chris Coleman: Yes, that was the first night of the Jazz Festival, I think, and Esperanza and Allen Toussaint were playing. Cray was deciding where they were going to locate their big headquarters for the Midwest, and one of the options was downtown St.  Paul. The tour we gave them hadn’t gone all that well for a number of reasons I won’t go into. But at the end of that day, they walked into Mears Park; it was the night that Barrio was opening its doors for the first time and The Bulldog was full of people, and the Jazz Fest was beginning. And the head of the group, Wayne Kugel, said, “this is the kind of place where I can attract the talent I need to be successful.” And that’s why this is so important.

Another catalytic moment for me happened years ago when I heard a report about Austin, Texas the success of Austin. They had a couple of key components: They had the university; it was the capital city of Texas; they had Dell Computer and a couple of other major companies. All of these were the same kind of advantages we had. But their defining factor in terms of becoming a top destination for the top talent in the world was Sixth Street. And it was just so clear to me that those are the kinds of things that change the image or your community.

Downtown a destination

The Line: What’s your ultimate image for downtown as a success story?

Chris Coleman: Well, I’d like to have downtown St. Paul have the same kind of pulse that downtown Nashville has. That’s an ambitious goal, but the core idea is this: You don’t say, I want to go down to this bar or that bar you say, in the case of Nashville, we’re going to go down to Broadway. Or in Austin, down to Sixth Street.

The goal is that downtown is itself a destination, and not just for people in the Twin Cities. A place where, when people are planning their vacations, they say, You know what? I want to be part of that music scene, the art scene, in St. Paul. Whether you’re going to a production at the Ordway or something at the Amsterdam or the River’s Edge Festival. All of those things become part of the mix. And from their you start adding other pieces to it: More people coming for the music scene means more people coming to the Convention Center, the Science Museum, the Children’s Museum, the History Museum. I think there are incredible opportunities for us to increase the vibrancy.

Joe Spencer: We’ve got this beautiful downtown, and one of its advantages is that it’s really compact. So as we keep adding assets, like the chef-driven bars and restaurants, from Amsterdam to the new Bedlam Theater, plus our existing strength in theaters, we don’t have all that much further to go before we are really populated with the sort of density of the Nashville vision.

We’re not hoping necessarily to attract all the big chains. We’ve been really deliberate about finding those independent, creative entrepreneurs that are going to pull all those things together. Whether its from the for-profit or the nonprofit sector, music venues, theater offerings, festivals it all kind of combines together to the point where it’s not somebody coming down for one thing, but for the scene.

Chris Coleman: And Mickey’s Diner is an important piece of that too. “A Prairie Home Companion. If you list all of our assets, there are very few communities that I think we’re running second to.

I still get this from time to time: Oh, downtown St. Paul is dead. I ask them a question, and I already know the answer: When was the last time you were down there? Invariably it will be, 10 years ago. And I’ll say, then you don’t know anything about downtown St. Paul. Is it Rush Street in Chicago? No. But it’s a fundamentally different place than it was a decade ago.

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Jon Spayde is Managing Editor of The Line.

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