Lenny Russo

Russo is currently the chef and proprietor of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in St. Paul. Russo has more than 30 years experience in the food and beverage industry including executive chef, general manager, food and beverage director and corporate chef for several Twin Cities companies, among them being U.S. Restaurants, Aveda Corporation, W.A. Frost & Company, Faegre’s, the Loring Cafe and the New French Cafe. Read more about Lenny Russo.

Thank you City Council for helping to build a better Saint Paul

Posted by: Lenny Russo Updated: February 29, 2012 - 10:10 PM

I recently took the St. Paul City Council to task in this blog for allowing activist residents to influence them to overturn their own votes.  I felt their original decisions were wisely and thoughtfully made in the best interests of all of St. Paul's citizens, and I was dismayed to see them cave in to pressure from groups that would put their own self interests ahead of the greater good of the majority of St. Paulites.

I must now offer my congratulations and compliments to them for their recent decisions to approve financing for the long delayed Penfield project as well as approval of a TIF district for the redevelopment of the old Schmidt Brewery site on West Seventh Street which will add 260 units of affordable housing for artists.  Additional development and rehabilitation funds were approved for low income housing at both St. Alban's Park and St. Philip's Gardens.  These projects will not only help to create jobs and stimulate private investment, but they also cut across socioeconomic divides.

It is often said by some that government does not create jobs; the private sector does.  That statement is for the most part true, but government does play a significant role in creating a positive climate for job growth and private investment.

Many people have criticized the federal government's bailout of the U.S. auto industry saying that we should have allowed General Motors and Chrysler to go bankrupt.  In times when the credit markets are stable, that might very well have been the best approach.  Normally, a company would file bankruptcy and use available credit to reorganize under Chapter 11.  Facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the credit markets had dried up.  It was up to the federal government to step in and provide that credit or face what could have been a cataclysmic event.  Instead of that cataclysm, thousands of jobs were saved, and the once proud American auto industry was not only snatched from the jaws of death but rebounded with renewed vigor and vitality.  One can certainly criticize the structure of the bailout, but criticizing the government's role in averting a financial crisis by providing a means to a positive end seems ill informed.

The same could be said for the Penfield project located at 10th and Minnesota Streets and the recently completed Lofts at Farmers' Market kitty corner from Heartland on 5th and Wall Streets.  Both developments bring much needed market rate housing to Lowertown St. Paul thereby providing the residential critical mass necessary to attract retail and business development.  In addition, they are located in prime areas within two blocks on the new light rail line.  The Penfield will bring with it a new Lunds supermarket.  Not only will that provide good paying jobs, but it will also provide a vital service to the downtown dweller.  One of the keys to attracting Cray to relocate to Lowertown was the Mayor's promise that amenities such as market rate housing, expanded retail and the light rail line would provide their workers with reasons to live and work in downtown St. Paul.  Mayor Chris Coleman's Rebuild Saint Paul Initiative is a well-designed blueprint for the revitalization of our great city.  These projects are part of that initiative.

In regard to the Penfield development, City Council President Kathy Lantry questioned whether or not it was wise to invest so heavily in one project thereby  exposing the city to greater risk instead of spreading out the money among many other projects.  It's a reasonable question.  I would contend that all one need do is look at the federal stimulus funds to gain an answer to that.  Those funds have been spread out so thinly that they haven't been effective enough in creating significant job growth.  Had they been invested more heavily in fewer projects, they would have had greater impact.  In addition, Council Member Dave Thune, acting as the head of the city's Housing and Redevelopment Agency, accurately pointed out that federal mortgage insurance through HUD is backing up the deal.  He also noted that 50% of the apartments in the recently completed Lofts at Farmers' Market have been pre-leased.

Council Member Dan Bostrom voiced concern over the fact that the Penfield will not be connected by skyway to the rest of downtown.  I would contend that that hasn't been an issue for the new Minneapolis riverfront developments, the revitalization of Minneapolis' North Loop and the continued growth in Minneapolis' Northeast quadrant.  Much of Lowertown including Heartland is not connected by skyway to the central business district.  An entertainment district such as Lowertown and those in Minneapolis does not depend upon skyway access for its success.

Now that our City Council has declared that St. Paul is not and never will be a bedroom community for Minneapolis, it is up to our State Legislature to follow suit by approving Governor Mark Dayton's proposal for $27 million in bonds for a regional ballpark on the site of the old Diamond Products building in Lowertown.  The plan calls for the St. Paul Port Authority to swap the Lowertown industrial area it now owns for the Midway Stadium site which would be returned to more appropriate industrial use.  In return, the Lowertown site, which is badly polluted and will never be redeveloped as housing, would not only include a new St. Paul Saints ballpark but, in keeping with the character of the neighborhood, it would include spaces for rotating exhibits by local artists.  In addition, it would provide a venue for national tournaments for American Legion and Division II and III baseball teams.  In winter months, the plan calls for converting the ballpark to a skating rink.  The large public plaza that would welcome fans would be a public space for residents and visitors.  The site sits within three blocks of Union Depot and is next to the light rail maintenance facility now being built.  The Saints would contribute $10 million to the project and pay all maintenance costs as the primary tenant, and the city would contribute $13 million toward the land acquisition and clean up.  The city would own the ballpark.

What that would mean to St. Paul cannot be overstated.  The projected completion date would be 2014 which would coincide with the new light rail line debut as well as numerous nearby infrastructure and development projects now underway.  Keep in mind that this development is family oriented.  The price of a general admission ticket to a St. Paul Saints game is only $5.  Even if that price was doubled, it would still be comparable to the price of a ticket to a local movie theater.  For Lowertown residents in particular, being able to walk outside one's front door and attend a ball game for the price of admission to a movie is an amenity akin to the Farmers' Market.  By the way, the Farmers' Market is located directly across the street from the ballpark site.  The synergy that this development would create is undeniable.

I have spent a fair amount of time with Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem who was the original sponsor of this proposal two years ago as well as with the Republican Legislative caucus in hopes that they will support the revitalization of St. Paul.  I continue in that hope as I implore them to recognize that a vital and vibrant Capital City is essential to the overall prosperity of all of Minnesota, and I urge them to follow our City Council in supporting that dream.

 

 

 

 

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