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Continued: Schafer: Rybak blazed a creative path to boost economy

  • Article by: LEE SCHAFER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 5, 2013 - 9:10 PM

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak didn't come into office as the economic development mayor.

The insurgent mayoral candidate who swept into office in 2001 was as aggravated as anyone with "economic development," if that meant big public subsidies handed out for new buildings.

But that doesn't mean that Rybak, who has announced he will not seek a fourth term, has no economic development record.

His critics can point to unfilled holes in the ground, no population gain in the 2010 census despite housing expansion near downtown, and the curious sight of an anti-subsidy mayor going all-in politically on a generous proposal to land the new Vikings stadium.

But in conversations with academics and businesspeople last week, it seems the final grade for Rybak in economic development is looking good. They pointed out that it's sometimes difficult to tease out Rybak's effective economic growth strategies from what look to be common sense efforts to run a big city better, in areas such as transit and small-business assistance.

They see Rybak as an effective collaborator with businesses, other units of governments and foundations, and praise his role as an enthusiastic and charismatic front man for the city and region.

And at a time of diminished public resources, when the debate is between cutting spending or investing for long-term growth, Rybak understood that he had to do both.

"He actually paid down $241 million in debt since he came on. That's really rather remarkable," said Russ Nelson, president and principal of the Minneapolis real estate advisory firm Nelson, Tietz & Hoye and a longtime civic volunteer.

In addition to reforming pensions, Nelson said, "he held the line on wages, almost like he was his own business CEO. And yet some of his other politics wouldn't reflect that."

Finding ways to shave costs and cap budgets is one part of what was required to survive as mayor since 2002, but to move forward there also needed to be money for growth.

Rybak said his priority was investment in what he called "the common ground," a project like the reconstructed Marquette and 2nd Avenues for downtown bus traffic, largely paid for with federal money. Those streets now feature two bus-only lanes on each street, allowing buses for the first time to pass one another, one way to achieve the city's goal of dramatically reducing travel time through downtown.

Michael Langley, CEO of the economic development group Greater MSP, said Rybak's record is one of strong collaboration with units of government and leaders across the region, maybe particularly so with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who shares an interest in regional initiatives. "Any region that approaches its problems together is going to do better than ones where they stay in silos," Langley said.

It was a similar approach when Rybak recruited partners for Step-Up, a Minneapolis program for youths that has helped place 16,000 students into summer jobs since 2004, as investing in human capital was another leg of his economic development strategy.

He recruited U.S. Bancorp CEO Richard Davis and other business leaders to lend a hand. Davis said last week that Rybak's concept for Step-Up, and his "infectious" support of it, "is one of the most impressive things I have seen in civic leadership."

One of his own priorities, Davis said, is making sure the program stays in the budget of Rybak's successor.

"The reason that this is interesting now, with eight or nine years under our belt, is that we have got tons of young people who have already gone through college," Davis said. "They are already back in the workplace. And some of them will say to you, no exaggeration, 'It's the most important thing that's happened in my life.'"

An economic development plan based on training young people for knowledge economy jobs 10 years down the road, and trying to find funding for a way to get them to work without a car, "is a lot different than the way things used to be done," said Lee Munnich, senior fellow and director of the state and local policy program at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "The things he's talking about are exactly where economic development is going."

Never one to be short on enthusiasms to pitch, Rybak talked in our conversation about unfinished work, including plans for a modern streetcar line down Nicollet Avenue and across the Mississippi River into northeast Minneapolis. He said there is the potential for "tens of thousands" of new housing units along streetcar lines, and he hopes to leave office with a streetcar financing plan in place.

It's hard to imagine a compelling business case for operating streetcars, modern or otherwise, but there were also plenty of skeptics as Rybak championed a shared bicycle service back in 2008. What became the nonprofit Nice Ride Minnesota has certainly succeeded.

Rybak will not cut ribbons on any streetcar lines and he will be long gone from the mayor's office before any grand openings of developments near a new Vikings stadium, but he said that hasn't diminished his eagerness to invest his time this year in them.

A little note in the upper left-hand corner of a whiteboard in his City Hall office reads "1YY!" Hard to spot without him pointing it out, it means "one year, yay!" It's a kind of personal cheer for a mayor who said his last year will be his most productive.

"Even eight or nine years ago, when he connected with me [on Step-Up], he had a view that it didn't matter how long he was going to be in that job but that we had to invest in the long future," said Davis of U.S. Bank. "If I had a bunch of my peers together, we would vote him first and foremost a long-term visionary, with the courage and patience to get to the right answer even if it takes longer."

lee.schafer@startribune.com • 612-673-4302

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