The Minneapolis City Hall tower is known for its clock and tuneful noon-hour chimes. For me it needs a calendar and an alarm buzzer, too. Wake up! The city election is less than four months away! And it’s a big one — the first in 20 years without an incumbent mayor on the ballot, plus a milk-carton boatload of City Council seats up for grabs.
It’s time to go to school on Minneapolis, I told professor emeritus John Adams of the University of Minnesota. He’s the urban geographer who literally wrote the book on the Twin Cities since World War II. (That’s “Minneapolis-St. Paul: People, Place, and Public Life,” University of Minnesota Press, 1993.)
The good professor obliged with a brief seminar, as I was sure he would. Adams has spent a scholarly lifetime trying to teach Minneapolitans a thing or two about their city.
A thing: Minneapolis is the central headquarters of a metropolitan system that’s in competition with scores of other metropolitan systems around the world. Within that system, it may be the big cheese, but it does not stand alone, and shouldn’t try to.
Or two: The loss of city resources to the suburbs since World War II wasn’t inevitable or accidental. It was spurred by an array of 10 or more state and federal subsidies, from the deductibility of home mortgage interest to government funding for new roads and bridges in developing areas.
“If you bribe people to leave, don’t be surprised if they go,” Adams said.
Those two lessons are the context for this year’s course correction, a k a election campaign. The new twist is this: Despite all those suburban subsidies, a half-century of population decline in Minneapolis appears to be ending. The head counters at the Metropolitan Council peg the city’s population in 2010 at 405,300, up some 22,500 from 2000. Gains since then have the city on track to hit 425,800 in 2020, the council says.
Why? “The demography of the metropolitan system is changing massively,” Adams said. “Middle- and upper-middle-class people, boomers, are retiring by the thousands every year. Many of them have tastes that are not well-matched with what’s available in the suburbs. In addition, newcomers are arriving in Minneapolis in steady numbers, because this is a more vibrant metropolitan economy than many of its competitors. They want what the city offers.”
A little perspective is in order: The city population forecast for 2020 is still 65,000 fewer people than called Minneapolis home in 1940.
The latest census showed that the suburbs are still growing. Housing is still a bargain in the exurbs. The subsidies persist, at least for now.
Still, something is changing for the better for Minneapolis. The next mayor and council will bear a responsibility to keep the good news coming.
Adams advises those who want to lead Minneapolis to widen their attention beyond the city’s operating budget — property tax money in, yearly spending out — and consider the whole metro area’s balance sheet, its long-term assets and liabilities. That’s a measure governments don’t routinely keep, and probably should.
A good city government is one that aims to benefit the entire metropolitan area, Adams says. It builds the assets that make people want to live in the city, minimizes the liabilities, and makes the whole Twin Cities area better able to keep up with the Denvers, Seattles, Frankfurts and Singapores.
What assets? Natural ones like trees (a tender topic this summer) and water quality. Built ones like sewers, roads and transit lines. And human ones — police and fire protection, public health, arts and culture, and most of all education.
“In terms of people as a resource, this place is doing OK,” Adams said. “It could do a lot better, because we’re currently going through the motions with regard to some things in our education system. We’re not getting full value for what we spend.”
In Minneapolis and the rest of Minnesota, mayors and city councils don’t run schools. School boards do, with a major assist from the Legislature.
But mayors have great capacity to set the whole city’s agenda, as Mayor R.T. Rybak has demonstrated through three vigorous terms. School improvement has been consistently on his list of talking points, to Adams’ satisfaction.
“Investing in little kids is the most important thing of all,” Adams said. “If all the little kids get to age 5 or 6 ready to go to school, think of all the negative stuff that would go away. Then make sure that the K-12 systems aren’t defective. … To the extent that the city can help the school system work, that would make a big difference.”
What could a mayor, or a mayoral campaign, do about that? I liked Adams’ answer: Urge a switch to all-year school.
“That would be a real boon for some kids. Think of the ways in which the school system and the parks system could keep kids busy and learning all year round,” he said.
Think of how such a move would restore the reputation of Minneapolis public schools as an education innovator.
And think about the gain for this entire region if in the next two decades corrections and welfare costs decline, and sales and income tax revenues rise, because Minneapolis is educating more of its children well. That’s a topic worthy of the most important city election in two decades.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.