Just about a year and a half ago, I was asked, along with other Saint Paul business leaders, to sit in on a meeting in Mayor Chris Coleman's office with a delegation of Federated Department Stores executives who had traveled to Saint Paul to discuss the future of the downtown Macy's. The meeting was designed to allow the attendees to exchange some observations and opinions about where we felt Saint Paul was headed as far as upcoming development and growth potential. Those of us in attendance expressed to the Federated team our bullish enthusiasm for what we saw as Saint Paul's superb opportunities for redevelopment and the steady increase in downtown housing and new residents. The addition of the new light rail line connecting to Minneapolis was also a major discussion point.
The Federated folks listened politely and expressed their continued intention to remain in Saint Paul. We now know that what they said was either noncommittal or blatantly false. No matter, because what Macy's was bringing to the table was not then and is not now an amenity that made us stronger and more attractive as a city. While there is a certain amount of negative symbolism that accompanies the loss of a high profile merchant such as Macy's, that store was never a major draw for most of those who would choose to live or work downtown, and, unlike the Dayton family, Federated never engaged the community in a way that would ingratiate it to the people of Saint Paul.
So when I saw the headline in the Star Tribune opinion pages that declared, "Macy's exit is a wakeup call", I half expected the article to declare what a wonderful opportunity now exists for major redevelopment of a prime downtown parcel sitting adjacent to the new light rail line. Instead, what I read was an overblown attack on every major civic leader and how Saint Paul is sliding into insolvency.
The author of that attack piece is Paul Olson. Olson led the Blandin Foundation for 25 years beginning in 1978 and ending in 2003. What he has been doing since then is not clear to me, but, unlike me and many of my colleagues who sit on the board of directors of the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, I don't believe he is actively engaged in running private sector businesses. The foundation he ran was established in 1941 by Charles Blandin of the Blandin Paper Company in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. No, Olson didn't create the foundation; he simply assumed control of it. Prior to that, he worked for the Hill Family Foundation. I can find no private sector experience on this man's resume, but he seems to think he knows a thing or two about what we in the private sector consider to be vital.
According to the Blandin Foundation's website, their mission is to help promote economic growth in rural Minnesota with particular emphasis on Grand Rapids. The last time I checked, the unemployment rate in Grand Rapids was 12.3%. Compare that to the state unemployment rate of 6.6% and the 5.5% rate in Saint Paul. Yet Olson saw fit to call out every major philanthropic organization in Saint Paul for what he perceives as their failure to "advance the community". He also decries the public investment in infrastructure and other developments In Saint Paul as well as non-taxpaying government, church and educational institutions. He does so even though Grand Rapids is the beneficiary of a special tax tied to the taconite industry which has been used to decrease property taxes there. Grand Rapids is a very nice town filled with very nice people. When I have visited there, which I have done once a year for the last three years, the ongoing joke has been that their cable bills are more than their property taxes.
Over the last ten years during one of the worst economies on record, Saint Paul has seen an increase of 28% in people who live downtown, an increase which has spurred new investment. In 2009, we chose Lowertown Saint Paul over several other locations to relocate and expand our business. Apparently, Cray Incorporated felt the same way. We see opportunity in the changes taking place here while people like Olson only see what is currently lacking. He claims there is a dearth of leadership regarding our economic advancement, but he offers not one concrete idea to the contrary. In the meantime, people like us in the private sector continue to invest in Saint Paul and look forward to the challenges of the next few years.
And there will be challenges. Those of us in the game know that redevelopment of our fair city will require an intimate partnership between the private and public sectors in order to continue Saint Paul's revitalization, but claiming Saint Paul to be on a "downward trajectory" as Olson did is far from accurate. Quite the contrary is true. As a member of the Lowertown Ballpark Design Committee, I am concerned right now with how we are going to manage our rapid growth while making sure that we have enough parking for everyone who wants to visit Lowertown, including those patronizing our vibrant arts community and the recently opened Baroque Room. With events in Mears Park, the Farmers' Market, the Lowertown Art Crawl, the new ballpark, the new restaurant and entertainment venues and the increase in residents, we are busy looking at ways to ensure that our new found popularity is reasonably managed and remains accessible to all. Wouldn't it be great if there were too many people and not enough parking as opposed to the reverse? That's the kind of problem we can all look forward to solving. Losing Macy's is not a problem. As one door closes, another one opens. What we have here is a great opportunity to bring redevelopment to a prime corner in downtown that will be something that contributes to the vibrancy of our city. Now if only Macy's will take Paul Olson with them when they leave, that would be real progress.