Johnny Jackson, an unsung hero among us downtown laborers, recently was named "Ambassador of the Year," one of the 80 blue-jacketed, lime-hatted ambassadors who patrol 120 blocks for the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District, the nonprofit business funded mostly by downtown property owners.

"I like to keep it clean downtown and assist people and keep my eyes on the street," Jackson said recently. "And it makes a lot of difference when people pat you on the back or send positive e-mails."

Jackson, a friendly man you want on your team, is part of a crew that every year assists 120,000 pedestrians with directions, has helped reduce downtown crime for several years in a row with their presence and timely calls to police. The ambassadors also collect about 1 million pounds of trash and recyclables; grow trees and gardens; keep public places clear of snow and ice and, in my opinion, set a standard that prompts others to quit littering, and lend a hand to a neighbor in need.

"Just writing to say 'Thank you' for 'Johnny J's' assistance last Friday," a woman e-mailed Jackson's boss after an evening visit last December, one of many complimentary notes in Jackson's file.

"I am an infrequent visitor to downtown and had my directions mixed up by 90 degrees," she wrote. "Johnny struck up a conversation at a street corner while waiting for the traffic light to change. I asked him if I was heading the right way. I was not, so he escorted me to the parking ramp I was looking for. Thank you again for your assistance."

Last year, the commercial property owners downtown that constitute the Downtown Improvement District voted to extend the district another five years. That means that these businesses voted to tax themselves an additional $6.5 million, on top of existing municipal property taxes, to keep downtown cleaner, greener and safer.



It's been a tough winter for Minnesota grapevines, even though the most recent hybrids developed at the University of Minnesota should survive 30-below nights.

Regardless, interest is warming in the Cold Climate Conference, the annual get-together of the state's grape and wine industry that ran Thursday through Saturday. The conference included an update on economic impact on the industry. And the $50-a-ticket winter winefest paired the best from Buffalo Rock, Cannon River and a couple of dozen other Minnesota wineries with a number of local restaurants.

"We may not be the biggest wine conference in the country, but we are the biggest featuring cold-climate grapes," said Ronald Barnes of Nature's Acres Vineyard, south of the Twin Cities, and president of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association (

Terri Savaryn, marketing director of the association and owner of Sovereign Estate Wine in Waconia, said record attendance of up to 1,000 was expected among "conference attendees, vendors and folks just going to the trade show and winefest. This is our 10th anniversary and our largest conference ever.''

The three-day event was held at the Crowne Plaza St. Paul.

"We have done a lot of marketing … and as people find out about the cold-climate grape, we have the potential to expand more than any other wines," Savaryn said.

In a 2011 report, University of Minnesota economists found a rapidly growing industry of 101 vineyards and 34 wineries that supported 3,250 jobs and contributed $49 million in economic activity. Savaryn said there are now 45 wineries in the state. The miniboom is rooted in University of Minnesota research that led to crossing wild, hearty grapes that survive winters with delicious wine grapes, which has resulted in some interesting Minnesota vintages.


From parking lot to Hampton Inn

Mortenson Development began construction last week on a new 211-room Hampton Inn & Suites near the First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis. The site was a surface parking lot.

The nine-story, $37 million project is slated for completion in the first quarter of 2015. Located at 1st Avenue N. and 8th Street, the new hotel will be near Target Field, Target Center and the city's entertainment district and will be connected to the skyway system.

Construction of the new hotel property is being managed by Mortenson Construction and designed by ESG Architects in Minneapolis. It will be the first Hampton Inn & Suites in Minneapolis.

"The vibrancy of the downtown Minneapolis market is evident everywhere you look," said Tom Lander, vice president of Mortenson Development. "This property will be ideally located near major attractions and will provide tremendous accessibility to the downtown core, at an affordable price point, for the city's guests."

Janet Moore