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, Faegreā€™s, the Loring Cafe and the New French Cafe. Read more about Lenny Russo.

Saint Paul's Renaissance is Real

Posted by: Lenny Russo Updated: July 13, 2012 - 7:44 PM

Back in March of 2010, my business partners and I were sitting in a meeting with Cecile Bodor who heads the Saint Paul Department of Planning and Economic Development.  It was Cecile and her team that gave us the lead on the real estate that would eventually become Heartland's new location.

The first question she posed to us was, "How much money are you seeking from the city?"  I responded that we weren't seeking any money.  All we were asking for was the support of the Mayor's office in helping us navigate the numerous regulatory requirements and logistical obstacles that come with developing any commercial project in a large municipality such as Saint Paul.  I further explained that we were scheduled to close on the purchase of the real estate on April 15, and we had our general contractor scheduled to begin demolition on May 1.  Our plan was to continue to operate out of our old location until June 13, and then we would reopen in our new location on July 15.  I impressed upon her that our business would be bleeding money every day that we were not operating.  Besides that, we were concerned about how long our staff would be unemployed.  Our goal was to make sure that most of our team would be unemployed for no longer than two weeks.  We understood that taking on a project of the size we were proposing, located in a distressed property in a historic preservation district, would pose unique and considerable challenges when it came to regulatory and code compliance.  I explained that it was far more valuable to us to have our project supported through the various processes by the Mayor and the Department of Licensing and Inspections than it was to receive a grant or a loan from the city.

As it turned out, things were a lot more complicated than we had anticipated.  Nonetheless, we received an enormous amount of support from almost every city entity we encountered.  Even when we ran up against a member of the city staff who was less than anxious to help us streamline our inspections and occupancy approvals, the response from the Mayor's office was always timely and effective.  As a result, we were able to reopen in our new location on July 27.  The one week delay we encountered was not unanticipated, and it it was through the support of the Mayor's office that we stayed so close to our schedule.  Financially, that assistance was nearly invaluable to us.

As a member of the Board of Directors of the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, I believe I am not overstating myself in saying that most of us in the Chamber very much appreciate and support Mayor Chris Coleman in his efforts to help grow Saint Paul's business community.  As a political moderate, he understands the needs of all of Saint Paul's citizens, including residents and business owners alike.  He has done a wonderful job of balancing neighborhood concerns with the practical necessities of establishing and running a succesful business in our city.  This is no easy task.  Not only must he negotiate his agenda with the City Council, but he must do so in such a way as to be fair and evenhanded.  I firmly believe that it is partially through his leadership in concert with the City Council that we have seen positive growth in our business community and a lessening of restrictions that have impeded such growth in the past.

Most recently, I and my fellow members of the Lowertown Entertainment District found our yearly license applications, those that allow us to sell and serve food in Mears Park during the numerous events being held there this summer, were being denied in part due to a state code that supersedes the current city code which regulates such activities.  It was through the efforts of Joe Spencer in in the Mayor's office that we were able to work with DSI to facilitate the writing of a new code that would allow us to continue our presence in the park.  The result has been truly a model of cooperation between a city regulatory agency and private businesses.  Without that support, I fear that we would have run into a brick wall.  As it turned out, we are back on track and making money which, as we all know, generates tax dollars.

Speaking of tax dollars, according to the Saint Paul Port Authority, it is important to note that 33% of nonresidential property in Saint Paul is tax exempt.  In the U.S., that is second only to Boston.  As result and also according to the Port Authority, commercial properties are taxed at a rate that is roughly twice that of residential properties.  Consequently, for every dollar generated by residential property taxes, the city has to provide somewhere between $1.08 and $1.16 in services, while commercial properties require services costing somewhere between $.60 and $.70 for every dollar of taxes paid.  Obviously, if the citizens of Saint Paul are to continue to be provided the services we have all come to enjoy and expect from our city, we will either have to increase the tax burden on existing properties or encourage an expansion of the tax base that produces positive cash flow.

Mayor Coleman and his administration understand this.  They also understand that residential critical mass, public services, improved infrastructure, better public transportation, the elimination of burdensome regulations and more people friendly public amenities such as the proposed Regional Ballpark are vital to attracting the kind of commercial and industrial growth that contribute to the revitalization of our city.  It is my hope that Governor Dayton, through the Department of Employment and Economic Development, as well as our City Council, will continue their recent support of these efforts for they are in the best interests of all of Saint Paul's citizens.

Saint Paul is our Capital City.  It deserves the love and respect of all Minnesotans.  I encourage anyone interested in opening a new business or in expanding an existing business to take a good, long look at Saint Paul.  I think you will be very pleased with what you see.

 

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