The longtime Hennepin County commissioner faces new challenges as the head of the Minneapolis Downtown Council.
Mark Stenglein steps down from the Hennepin County Board on Thursday to become president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, exchanging his sprawling urban and suburban constituency for a select group of regional movers and shakers.
In his new role, he'll take on the challenges posed by the council's new Downtown 2025 plan, a 15-year blueprint that calls for a vibrant and livable 24/7 downtown that can house double the 34,000 people who now live there.
That means hefty infrastructure investments and more green space, along with reductions in homelessness and a change in the nagging perception -- true or not -- that downtown, especially the Warehouse District, isn't entirely safe.
"He's very well-known as a no-nonsense, practical-minded person, and I think he will be quick to see what needs to be done and go about it very fast," said Sam Grabarski, the council's outgoing president.
The council expects that Stenglein's blend of 15 years of political experience on the County Board -- and nearly 20 years before that in accounting, real estate and small business -- will help forge public-private partnerships at a time of limited government funding, said Elliot Jaffee, chairman of the council board and president of U.S. Bank's Twin Cities operations.
The council is a commercial chamber of sorts for some 300 downtown businesses and large regional companies.
Stenglein last week was able to cross off one job he had braced for: building a new Vikings stadium downtown. It wasn't the site that he or the council preferred -- they wanted it to go near Target Field -- but Stenglein said he was "real happy for it now. It's here, and we'll make the best of it and it'll be great."
The big task, Stenglein said, will be "integrating residents into downtown." That means more services, retail amenities, perhaps even a school to draw young people and families as well as retired baby boomers craving an urban scene. Remaking Nicollet Mall will be one of the first steps.
Grabarski said that although the new stadium precludes a residential community on the Metrodome site, new housing can still go up nearby -- as long as there's a green buffer -- also in areas not yet built out on downtown's west side.
Stenglein knows it will be a big job. "I've got a lot to live up to," he said.
A political education
When Stenglein starts with the Downtown Council on Friday, he'll be making significantly more money than he has as commissioner, although how much more isn't clear.
Hennepin commissioners make about $97,000 a year, while Grabarski's total compensation (not just pay) in 2010 was $251,385, according to the council's most recent tax returns. Jaffee declined to reveal Stenglein's salary, which is paid from membership dues.
Jaffee said that the council didn't consciously search for someone with political skills to replace Grabarski, who is credited with great success in his 16 years as president. But political acumen, Jaffee said, "is certainly part of the skill set to be effective."
Grabarski said that Stenglein's political background should be helpful. But Grabarski also quoted Hubert Humphrey, who said that in politics friends come and go but enemies accumulate. If Stenglein has any enemies in the world, he said, "they'll still be there waiting for him as president of the Downtown Council. ... I always tried to make it difficult for Democrats and Republicans to know where my sentiments were."
That may not be a problem for Stenglein, who has seemingly covered the political spectrum in his years on the County Board. "If you disagreed with him politically," Commissioner Randy Johnson said, "you just waited a while."
Stenglein first ran for the board in 1996 as a 40-year-old business owner and political neophyte on the advice of Newt Gingrich, a good friend of his brother's. He pledged to be an independent voice for the DFL-dominated Second District, which included north and northeast Minneapolis, and squeezed enough votes from his suburban strongholds to beat DFL incumbent Sandra Hilary by 427 votes.
He subsequently ran as an independent in every election save the last one in 2010, when he sought and won DFL endorsement.
"Both parties spend, but at least the Democrats do it transparently," he said last week.
Stenglein drew attention with his African-American Men Project, an effort to rethink county policy to get more young black men employed and out of trouble. It was greeted cautiously by black community leaders, who suspected that the big white guy from Nordeast was seeking a political advantage. But he convinced them that he cared.
"In my mind it was a success in that he got the plight of African-American men before the state and city and county," said the Rev. Jerry McAfee, pastor at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in north Minneapolis.
'About the vision'
After losing a campaign for Minneapolis mayor in 2001, Stenglein became part of a group of commissioners who played important roles in light-rail transit, the takeover of the city's troubled library system and passage of a county sales tax to build Target Field.
Stenglein and fellow Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat were early partners in leading the push for the new Twins ballpark. While Opat is given due credit for spearheading the project, Stenglein led at key intervals and helped put Opat in charge of the county's effort.
Stenglein is known for his gregarious style and quick wit, qualities that colleagues say helped take the edge off debate on big decisions that the County Board tackled amid recession and upheaval.
"What you lend to the environment up here has just made it more fun and enabled us to be more productive," Commissioner Gail Dorfman told Stenglein at his final board meeting last week. "I can't think of anybody better to lead the Downtown Council moving forward."
Opat, one of Stenglein's best friends, said that his common sense and personality make him a good fit.
"He's headed for the perfect job," Opat said. "He's more about the vision; he might date the details, but he doesn't want to marry them. He'll be great with the members, and he'll be a great promoter."
Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455
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