St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman was ever the optimist Thursday as he played up a year of progress and partnership in a state of the city address that was light on new initiatives but heavy on continuing hard work.
"Our values have been tested by devastating budget cuts, record mortgage foreclosures and an economy that teetered on the brink of collapse," he said. "We come together today to say we have withstood that test."
He touched on the familiar topics of the progressing Central Corridor light-rail line, the on-again off-again Penfield project and a new municipal ballpark and downtown ice arena. He also stressed new partnerships with St. Paul Public Schools to cut costs and better serve students. Efforts to reduce energy in the city are paying off, he said.
About 200 people attended the speech at the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory visitor center. It was held there to highlight the soon-to-be-opened Polar Bear Odyssey exhibit, made possible by legislative funding, and to celebrate a community asset.
"There was nothing really new, but confidence that it's not the end of the world," said Council Member Dan Bostrom after the speech.
Absent from Coleman's address was a detailed illustration of the city's financial picture. Legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty soon must deal with a bleak financial picture; their decisions on how to balance the state budget will have effects on St. Paul and the services it delivers.
Coleman said after his speech that the city will have to cut at least $5.5 million this year because of state aid cuts. He said he's waiting to see what else lawmakers do before the session ends in a few weeks before making detailed plans for cuts.
As the city's budget process picks up in coming months, however, Coleman said it's likely residents will see changes. Specifically, Coleman said in his speech, the city and school district are looking at ways to work together to save money and improve services. "Our focus has to remain on students, not buildings," he said.
Education has long been a top priority for Coleman.
Schools superintendent Valeria Silva, who is three months into the job and in the midst of cutting millions from the district's budget, said she is looking forward to working with the mayor.
"This is no time for politics," she said. "We need to look at what we have and what we can offer, and we need to make it happen."
Coleman badly wants to make the Penfield happen. It is a stalled downtown housing and grocery store project that has found new momentum. The city might take over as developer and use bonds backed by the federal government to cover much of the $54 million cost. That approach hasn't won over everybody on the City Council, though.
When asked about it after his speech, Coleman said council members are asking the right questions. "You calculate risk and if it makes sense, move forward," he said. "It's a critical project for the city."
Chris Havens • 612-673-4148