How Minneapolis can make way for new jobs

  • Article by: STAR TRIBUNE EDITORIAL
  • Updated: September 14, 2013 - 5:13 PM

New city officials will inherit major opportunities for job growth. Here are watchwords for seizing them.

Barges still pull up to the Port of Minneapolis on west bank of the Mississippi River a few miles north of downtown. Fertilizer in casks — and coal, sand and crushed concrete in mounds — still stand near the water’s edge, waiting to be trucked away.

But the 19th- and 20th-century industrial era is winding down at the Minneapolis Upper Harbor Terminal. Grain shipments, once its lifeblood, ended a decade ago. Employment at the terminal has dwindled to 12, down by nearly two-thirds since 1990. Barge traffic at the port is scheduled to end in December 2014, when the city’s lease expires with terminal operator River Services Inc.

When that happens, a prime opportunity to pivot to the 21st century will present itself to the next Minneapolis mayor and City Council and the city’s economic development apparatus. The Upper Harbor Terminal has great potential to become an amenity-rich business park, home to hundreds of high-tech, knowledge-­economy jobs. Whether that potential is realized will be an important indicator of the city’s capacity to grow in prosperity as well as population in coming years.

A similar test has already begun in the eastern third of downtown, in the shadow of the doomed Metrodome. Relabeled “Downtown East,” the area near a new home for the Minnesota Vikings appears on its way to a new identity as a place to work and live as well as play (or watch professional athletes play).

Job-creating redevelopment also seems tantalizingly within reach for the Nicollet Avenue-Lake Street junction, in an old industrial area east of the University of Minnesota, and along proposed streetcar and light-rail lines that are closer than ever to fruition. There’s fresh optimism too about a job-creating reuse of Shoreham Yards in northeast Minneapolis, a 19th-century railroad yard where pollution cleanup efforts are preparing it for new life.

With so many large-scale opportunities at hand, winners of the Nov. 5 city election will arrive in office well positioned to preside over major employment gains in a city that endured too much of the opposite in the last half-century. They will also have in their favor an improving national economy and the solid groundwork laid for them by retiring Mayor R.T. Rybak.

But it will be up to those newly elected officials to parlay their advantages into results. The new crew will need to send a clear signal that on their watch, Minneapolis will be a good place to do business.

The city is enjoying employment levels that are the envy of other major U.S. cities. It held its own compared with the rest of the state during the Great Recession. In 2012, the number of jobs in the city were back to their 2006 levels, after taking a 5 percent dive between 2008 and 2010 (see accompanying charts).

In ways great and small, the Rybak administration has set the table well for job growth. Its attention to faster processing of business permits and license applications is producing gains in time, money and reputation for the city. Chronic complaints about excessive regulatory red tape in Minneapolis have finally eased.

On Rybak’s watch, crime rates dropped and neighborhoods stabilized. The fiscal discipline Rybak brought to City Hall led last month to his recommendation for a 1 percent reduction in the city’s property tax levy next year. His personal engagement with the city-funded STEP-UP summer internship program has given 16,000 disadvantaged youth a boost toward college and employment over 10 years, while assuring employers that the workforce they will need in the future will be available in the city.

Rybak’s successor and the new mayor’s City Hall partners can build on those strengths to woo and win more private-sector jobs. In particular, they’d do well to:

• Mind the municipal basics: Providing quality infrastructure and public safety at a reasonable price is as basic to job growth in Minneapolis in the 21st century as it was when the city was new. No glitzy come-on to employers will be effective if crime worsens, water mains repeatedly break, winter roads go unplowed, parks deteriorate and trash accumulates. And while most employers understand that the services that prevent those outcomes cost money, few can or will tolerate uncompetitively high property taxes.

Redevelopment at the Upper Harbor Terminal is likely to prove that point. Jobs won’t appear there unless and until city government first carves new streets and sidewalks, extends sewer lines, and brings transit and bike trails to the site. Appealing green space that takes advantage of the Mississippi will be needed, too. The River First initiative of the city’s Park Board, City Council and Parks Foundation is arriving just in time to help, with stunningly attractive plans for turning a forgotten stretch of riverfront into a destination.

City officials have to be willing to “spend on the come” on infrastructure and green space in places like the Upper Harbor Terminal, Downtown East and Shoreham Yards. While doing so is a gamble, the city’s long-term vitality is at greater risk if the city refuses to invest.

• Use incentives sparingly: Sustainable job growth usually isn’t built on short-term tax breaks or short-lived grants to selected employers. City tax dollars are better spent on keeping the quality of municipal services high.

But politicians should never say never about economic development. In the part of the city walloped by the Great Recession and a 2011 tornado — the North Side — Rybak concluded that special inducements for private-sector hiring are warranted to combat high unemployment.

The program he launched this year, Grow North, deserves to survive the mayoral transition. It offers forgivable loans and job-training assistance to private employers who put 75 or more jobs on the North Side, fill them with a significant number of North Side residents, and employ green building design for any new construction. It also helps employees relocating to new North Side jobs find nearby housing, with up to $5,000 in down-payment assistance on the purchase of a North Side home. That smart package acknowledges that more jobs are necessary but not sufficient to the large-scale renewal the North Side needs.

• Project a pro-jobs vision: One of the best things Minneapolis political leaders can do to spur job growth is to talk about it, again and again. A mayor, City Council members, and Park Board members all have constituencies prone to exhibit aversion to change. Helping Minneapolitans tamp down NIMBYism and welcome new employers in their midst is an important leadership task for which elected officials are uniquely positioned.

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