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St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman Q-A: Challenges ahead, but ‘great projects’ transforming city

He cites as progress Lowertown’s vitality, the advent of light rail and such neighborhood projects as the redevelopment of two former breweries.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman: "If there's an uptick in state aid or the economy recovers, St. Paul is poised to recover financially as well as any city in the country."
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen

Chris Coleman was elected mayor of St. Paul in 2005 and came into office with big plans to revitalize some of the city’s poorer neighborhoods. Then came the recession and the housing crisis, along with cuts in state aid.

So, instead of making sweeping changes, much of his efforts as mayor has gone into keeping the city afloat.

St. Paul has been in the news recently with a mix of good and not so good news.

On the plus side, the Central Corridor light rail line will open next year. Although some businesses affected by the years-long construction have closed, those that remain hope to return to profitability when the trains start rolling. And Lowertown, anchored by the newly restored Union Depot transit hub, is bustling with restaurants and nightlife activity.

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On the negative side, Macy’s department store will be closing soon, leaving a gaping block-square hole in the downtown fabric. And a downtown water main broke last weekend, reminding us of the infrastructure problems that face all cities.

Although Coleman hasn’t formally declared for a third term, it’s widely expected he’ll do so.

Voters, so far, seem to like what he’s done. He easily won re-election in 2009, and no major contender has emerged yet to run against him this November.

Coleman was born and raised in St. Paul, the son of powerful legislative leader Nick Coleman. Chris worked as a public defender and prosecutor and served on the St. Paul City Council for six years. He sought the DFL endorsement for a run for Congress in 2000, losing out to Congresswoman Betty McCollum.

Here’s an edited version of a discussion we had this week:

MinnPost: It’s no secret that you plan to run again for a third term as mayor in November. Is an official announcement coming? Like right now?

Chris Coleman: You’ll have to stay tuned on that one. I don’t think the ultimate decision will surprise anyone.

MP: OK, so if there is a third term, do you have a big push, a big theme?

CC: We’ve great projects that are transforming not only downtown, but the entire city of St. Paul. Work at Hamm’s Brewery and the Schmidt Brewery [and] the groundwork that’s at the Ford site are all transformative projects that go beyond the work around the light rail line or the regional ballpark or the Penfield project and the Lunds store.

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If you were just to stop there, you’d say that’s a pretty good agenda, but there’s a lot more we can do. And ultimately we have to get to the point to have this growth be self-sustaining, attract more companies and businesses and more people who want to live in our community.

And in particular, we have to create a vibrant community for folks deciding where they want to live and work.

MP: Is that what the Lowertown effort [with new bars, restaurants and housing] is for?

CC: It’s clearly a huge piece of it — musical festivals, regional ballpark, housing opportunities. And couple it with weird, crazy things like Crashed Ice and St. Paul becomes a great place to live — not only for those of us who’ve been here for multiple generations but folks who are looking for new destinations.

MP: Since you were first elected in 2005, what’s changed in St. Paul?

CC: In 2005, the discussion about light rail was in its 25th year, and we weren’t particularly close to getting it done. We had no organized relationship between the city and the school district. Since that time, we’ve established a network of programs that transform education. We have more police officers on the street. We’ve got a more focused fire department. All our departments are better managed. Our budget is under control. We got into structural balance and stayed there.

MP: What does structural balance mean?

CC: We were borrowing money every year to make up for one-time revenue sources that we used to keep the budget afloat in previous years. Every year we’d fall further and further behind, and couldn’t sustain that. We’d used all of our reserves to the point it was no longer possible to dip any further — for cash flow purposes if not for rating agencies. So we set out to make sure our permanent expenditures are matched with permanent revenues. It was a huge challenge for us. So if there’s an uptick in state aid or the economy recovers, St. Paul is poised to recover financially as well as any city in the country.

MP: If either of those things happen, more Local Government Aid or a recovering economy, what would you do with the extra money?

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CC: We’ve had a lot of maintenance deferred in a lot of our facilities. The untold story around some of the problems with the crime lab was about the layers of government which people don’t see that were going unfunded. We’d been spending $800,000 on the crime lab while Minneapolis was spending $3.5 million on their crime lab. We’d gone for 10 years without any increase. There are a lot of things below the surface that are important for a well-run city. Firefighters have to have the best equipment, and police officers have to have the best training. Our libraries, our staff at the rec centers, there’s a lot that we can do there to strengthen the community.

MP: The $1 million that the city council agreed to spend on the crime lab, is that going to solve the major problems there?

CC: I think the [police] chief has got a very sensible plan. We’re not going to have a Cadillac crime lab, nor do we need to. We’re going to partner with the BCA and the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department. There are some things we’ll keep in-house and some things we’ll use partner agencies for. Ultimately it’s going to come down to how well-managed it is, and the chief is in the process of finding someone who can do that.

MP: The Macy’s store closing is an indicator of the changes facing downtowns and changes in retailing. Will that affect St. Paul’s vitality and the ability to attract people to live and work here?

CC: Downtowns have been changing for 60-plus years, since the invention of the covered shopping mall at Southdale. We went from having three or four anchor department stores in downtown to one, and in 2001 we propped it up and got it to stay here.

But since that time, we’ve captured the changing nature of downtowns [with bars, restaurants, entertainment, music in the parks]. We’ve got all those pieces and are capitalizing on what people are looking for downtown, good places to work, good places to live, good places to be entertained. They’re not looking for downtowns to be their major shopping center.

MP: Are the Saints ballpark plans on track?

CC: Definitely. We’ll break ground this spring and be ready to play ball in 2015.

MP: Thoughts on the sale of two downtown hotels to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe?

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CC: It’s a good indicator that people who have analyzed downtown think it’s a good place to invest. That wasn’t something we chased. Jim Graves [the hotelier and congressional candidate brought in by the band to help with the deal] told me: “Mayor, you may be too close to it to see how the perception of downtown St. Paul has changed, that it’s an emerging market. This is a place where people see an opportunity.”

MP: The water main break last weekend in downtown reminds us of the aging infrastructure that cities face.

CC: That’s not a problem particular to St. Paul — that’s a problem particular to the country and an example of how you can ignore things only so long before you face the consequences. We don’t know yet exactly what the cause of that pipe break was, but we do know there’s a lot of aging infrastructure that needs to be corrected. And it happens that the St. Paul water service has been more aggressive than any other water service I’ve seen.

MP: The vacated Post Office building on Kellogg Boulevard now has five bidders, but other riverfront buildings like West Publishing are still on the market. Does the city have an active role in getting those properties sold?

CC: Absolutely. The folks we’ve talked to about the Post Office aren’t looking for major [financial] participation from the city, and we’ve been heavily engaged with the county on trying to figure out  [how to] renovate or get a new building on the [West] site. Cleveland Circle and Macy’s and the Wabasha Court site are some other opportunities, so we have critical parcels in downtown that we’d like to see some movement on in the next couple years.

But I also want to be clear that there are projects across the city under way: Payne-Maryland on the East Side, a library and recreation center [and] getting people into the Hamm [Brewery] buildings and artists and residences in the Schmidt [Brewery] site. It’s not just a downtown focus.

MP: How are things going at the Ford Plant [which closed in 2011, leaving 122 prime riverfront acres available for redevelopment in Highland Park]?

CC: The Ford site is going to be a long process — you’ve got to get that right. Starts out with cleaning the site, and we’ll see some progress on that this year. The demolition permits have been issued. Then Ford will will look for a developer to work with, and we’ve been included in that conversation. That’s a project that, to reach its full potential, could take 20 years.

MP: There’s been some talk recently of more study for Ayd Mill Road. What would you like to see happen there?

CC: The council passed a resolution when I was on the council [about 10 years ago] to reach a balanced plan for Ayd Mill Road. Someone asked me the other day, “Why is it so hard to come up with a decision?” I said because the solution that has been suggested solved one person’s problem at the expense of somebody else.

Our plan was for a balanced parkway that connected with 35E on the south end and I-94 on the north end. The challenge then was that Washington needed to put resources into that plan, and the bureaucrats in D.C. tend to do things that make it easier for them but don’t really reflect the need or desires of the local community. So, the real challenge is to find the resources, but it’s a hard issue to solve in a way that isn’t at the expense of someone else.

MP: How are things going in St. Paul’s neighborhoods with foreclosures problems?

CC: Definitely getting better. When I first came into office in 2006, we had a plan that was going to focus resources on the neediest neighborhoods in the city. We were making some progress but then the recession hit and the housing crisis hit, and our plan changed to being focused on what to do with these houses that are sitting vacant and the pipes are being stolen out of them. That’s turning around. The real estate market is turning around, and people are seeing investment opportunities. I think we can get rid of some of the worst houses to help stabilize the neighborhoods.

I look back on these things and I think, St. Paul is doing really well. And this has happened through a really tough stretch when our resources were being diminished. I’m really proud that St. Paul is doing as well as it is.

MP: As mayor, you’ve been very involved with education issues — more so than previous mayors even though those issues don’t fall directly under the mayor’s jurisdiction. Why that focus?

CC: To repeat the mantra I’ve used over the years, education is my job strategy, my economic strategy and my public safety strategy.

If children are educated and children are prepared to take a job in the 21st century work force, the chances that I have to find low-income housing for them are diminished. The chances that I have to worry about them causing trouble are diminished;. Everything is better if a person has the education they need to find a job.

So I don’t know how you can be a mayor in the 21st century and not have education as a central tenet of the work that you’re doing. The current superintendent, who I’ve known since she was principal at my children’s school, and I have a very strong working relationship, so we’ve been able to integrate our efforts. That wasn’t necessarily the case with the previous superintendent, who didn’t really appreciate the resources we were putting into structuring what we could do.

MP: What do you like about being mayor?

CC: An example of why it’s fun to be mayor is a couple week ago [when] Kenny Horst, owner of the Artists’ Quarter [jazz club] had his 70th birthday party. So, late on a Friday night I went down there. He wasn’t expecting me to show up, so the ability to walk in and, with a simple act, really move someone — those kinds of moments I most enjoy.

MP: What do you least like?

CC: The time demands are intense. I don’t know that I’ve had a true open weekend in seven years — even the ones that are penciled off, there’s always something like water main breaks or snow emergencies.

MP: What do you do for fun?

CC: I started playing guitar when I became mayor. It’s something I can do for 10 minutes before I go to work or 20 minutes after.

MP: Do you play in a band?

CC: I mostly play by myself, but there’s a group of guys that I play with once in a while. I played with Curtiss A in a John Lennon tribute at First Avenue last December. I’m going to play Friday night with Jack McNally of McNally-Smith, who’s going to have a release party and I’m going to sit in on a couple tunes.

MP: Do you play rock or jazz, or what?

CC: A mix between blues and kind of folk, for a lack of a better term.

MP: Is there a special song you’d play, if someone asked nicely?

CC: I’d play “Here Comes the Sun.” I also play hockey when I can. I love to bike, and I apparently still have a cabin, but I don’t remember what it looks like.

MP: How’s the family?

CC: Fantastic. My daughter [Molly] is gallivanting around Spain this semester, finishing her second year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My son [Aidan] is going to graduate from Highland Park and go to the University of Minnesota this fall. That will mean more tuition bills, but thankfully Connie’s business is stabilizing — the real estate market.

MP: You’re set to be president of the National League of Cities next year, if you run and are re-elected. Is that a ceremonial thing? Or will you come in and say, “Here’s what we’re going to do”?

CC: It’s one of those things [where it’s] “Be careful what you ask for, because it’s going to be a lot of work.” As an example, this year’s president of the National League of Cities, Maria Lopez Rogers [of Avondale, Ariz.] was asked sit with the first lady at the State of the Union address, because the National League of Cities will be front and center in immigration reform.

So from my position in St. Paul to have a real impact on the national agenda is an honor and great opportunity. The last mayor who was in this position, from St. Paul, was George Latimer, and to follow in his footsteps is a great honor.

George continues to be a mentor and a source of usually sage advice. When I first came into this position, I thought everything George said was accurate and true, and now it’s down to about 50 percent.