Vikings stadium puts mayor's legacy on the line

  • Article by: STEVE BERG
  • Updated: February 10, 2012 - 7:06 PM

An evaluation of R.T. Rybak's tenure at Minneapolis City Hall.

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Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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In his 10 years at City Hall, Mayor R.T. Rybak has rallied Minneapolis in the face of a tragic bridge collapse, wept with families of murdered children and struggled to stabilize the city's once-shaky finances, all with an upbeat enthusiasm that twice won him reelection.

But never has he climbed so far out on a political limb as he has with the Minnesota Vikings.

Keeping the team downtown, and preferably on or near the Metrodome site, has become Rybak's latest big adventure. And for the moment the state's murky political powers seem content to stand aside to see if he can pull off his magic trick.

To the outsider, keeping the Vikings downtown seems a no-brainer. But the complications are monumental.

Not only must Rybak overcome a city charter that all but prohibits pro sports within city boundaries, he must deal with a competing site (Arden Hills), a Legislature that's often hostile to the city, a business community and a Hennepin County Board that prefers another downtown location, a neighboring city (St. Paul) that wants to land the Timberwolves as part of the deal, and a City Council that insists on a sure-to-fail referendum.

"We'll have a referendum two years from now when I stand for reelection," Rybak told council members last month when they criticized his stadium plan.

Ten years ago it would have been difficult to imagine Rybak rallying the city around a stadium. But now, with the economy stuck in slow motion, he's pushing hard for construction jobs as part of a larger effort to tee up the city and region for the recovery when it comes.

That means competing visibly on the national scene, and, like it or not, there's no better way to lock into the national consciousness than to host an NFL team.

Indeed, Rybak's play to keep the Vikings fits neatly into the list of other marks he has left in 10 years as mayor:

• His lively personal style has bolstered Minneapolis' reputation for active lifestyles, helping to make the whole metro region an attractive landing spot for young talent. Critics dismiss this as shallow politics and Rybak as "an empty polo shirt." But the mayor understands that a new era of competition places high value on marketing.

• Stadium aside, Rybak has recast City Hall's role in economic development, shifting away from subsidizing big projects (Block E was the last straw) and toward a broader, subtler approach: preparing the work force, stabilizing small business and improving public infrastructure, especially along transit corridors. All in all, the city's economic development budget and staffing has declined by 50 percent over 10 years.

• The mayor has focused on human capital, especially on reducing youth violence and convincing teenagers to pursue careers. The city public high school graduation rate has risen to 78 percent, up from 53 percent in 2006. Meanwhile, 63 percent of graduates now go to college, up from 48 percent. And 14,000 teenagers -- 93 percent of them from low-income families -- have participated in the summer jobs program offered by the city and its corporate partners.

• He has stabilized the city's shaky finances and streamlined city government by merging departments and cutting the workforce by 10 percent. Overall, spending declined by 16 percent over the decade. The city's top bond rating was restored. Pension obligations were absorbed by the state. The ailing library system was rescued by the county. And cumbersome bureaucracy was lessened, although probably not by enough.

Financial stability for the city came at a big price, however. Residential property taxes rose year after year to compensate for inherited debt, declining home values, big cuts in state aid and a state-imposed shift away from taxing commercial property. Aside from big tax bills, several misguided appointments have marred the mayor's record, as has a noticeable decline in the condition of streets.

Rybak's reliability as a partner has also come into question. Minneapolis can no longer accomplish much without collaboration, but the mayor's record is mixed. He crafted an impressive deal with President George W. Bush to fund bus rapid transit.

He forged closer ties with St. Paul and suburban mayors, and worked with private business to secure cleaner downtown sidewalks and summer jobs for teens. Yet, many in the business community and on the Hennepin County Board see him as a reluctant teammate.

"He doesn't always play well with others," said one official who cited a simmering rivalry with commissioners Mike Opat and Peter McLaughlin.

Indeed, not every advance in Minneapolis over the past decade has carried the mayor's fingerprints. He had little to do with the stunning cultural/entertainment revival (Guthrie, Walker, Target Field, etc.) or the successful return of rail transit. His strategies may well have helped to push violent crime to a 30-year low, but crime is a notoriously complex issue.

Major socioeconomic trends were obviously beyond his control. The city lost 27,000 jobs over the decade, and 10,000 homes slipped into foreclosure. Poverty rose by 5 percentage points, with 22 percent of city residents living below the poverty line by decade's end, largely in concentrated areas.

Altogether, the city's median household income fell to 30 percent below the metro income average. That's a huge city/suburb wealth disparity.

Also disappointing was the performance of the retail and residential markets, with suburbs grabbing virtually all of the growth. The city had hoped to claw back toward its historic population high (522,000 in 1950) as a way of easing the property tax burden, but it failed to reach even its short-term goal of 400,000.

In a long interview, Rybak said the city is held back not by its weak-mayor system but by a "fractured system" that dilutes all authority. He also challenged the notion that his terms have constituted a decade of retrenchment, preferring instead "a decade of refocus."

Minneapolis is better prepared for what's coming, he said, predicting that a better-qualified workforce and an improved infrastructure will draw jobs and new housing as the economy recovers.

"We had to stabilize a very shaky financial situation while continuing to hold up the idea that 'Here's the city we're building,'" he said, noting that too often cost-cutting becomes an end to itself. "We've aggressively positioned the city as progrowth," he said. "Now we need to actually do it."

For Rybak, "actually doing it" starts with keeping the NFL, with all of its economic advantages, downtown.

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Steve Berg, a former Star Tribune editorial writer, is an urban-design consultant.

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