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Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is whizzing through his final days at City Hall with the same intensity of his last crowd surf at First Avenue, where he headlined an “Un-Augural” bash to mark the end of his 12 years in office.
He’s dialing developers for the $400 million Downtown East project, arranging meetings and farewells, and negotiating with his wife about which oversized mayoral mementos piled up in his third-floor office she can indulge in their south Minneapolis home.
And after Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges is sworn in Jan. 2, Rybak says he’ll walk just a few blocks over to start his next job — heading an educational organization — with no break.
“I’ve literally never worked as hard as I have in the last couple of weeks,” he said in a brief interview before his stage dive Wednesday night. “... I’m basically not really going to change the tempo I’m working at [after leaving], which is probably good for me. If I went away onto some island and sat in the sun for a few weeks, I’d probably kill myself.”
Instead, his vacation will come from not immediately worrying about how the snowplows are working when the next blizzard strikes.
Minneapolis government is set up to give the mayor less power than the City Council, but Rybak seized the position in 2002 with gusto, carefully crafting City Hall’s public image and asserting his vision. He sought to build consensus and hash out any disputes behind closed doors. And outside of government offices, he championed Nice Ride bikes, food trucks, composed unabashedly corny Twitter poetry and made it his business to show up as many places as he could.
One of Rybak’s most visible legacies will be the planned transformation of land owned by the Star Tribune in Downtown East from a drab string of parking lots into a complex of Wells Fargo office space, apartments, shops, a parking ramp and a nearly two-block public park in the shadow of the new Minnesota Vikings stadium.
The largest development deal in recent Minneapolis history won approval from the City Council on Dec. 13 — just under the wire for Rybak, who spearheaded the project. But he’s using his final days in office to try to recruit developers to buy the air rights over the parking ramp.
He is also trying to drum up private contributions for the new park that will connect the stadium and downtown, requests that he knows are easier to make when he is mayor than when he continues the task as just a regular citizen.
The development of that part of downtown “will be a big part of his legacy,” said Jeremy Hanson Willis, director of the department of Community, Planning and Economic Development and the mayor’s former chief of staff. “… The physical shape of the city will be different. A new stadium will be an imposing presence on the skyline of the city and [so will] the largest office tower development in a generation.”
Last term: Building the city
Rybak swept into office months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and spent his early years turning around the city’s grim fiscal affairs, paying down debt and trimming expenses. Later, he battled a spike in crime and the recession. Only in recent years did he succeed in shepherding through larger-scale projects, such as the Nicollet-Central streetcar line, renovations to Target Center, the new Vikings stadium, and the Downtown East deal.
“This last term was when the mayor was able to focus on … doing the kind of city-building that he had hoped to do 10 years ago,” Hanson Willis said, and now, “there has been a real energy in the office to seize every last opportunity that the mayor possibly can.”
Downtown Council President Steve Cramer said they had an animated conversation recently in which Rybak sought input about his nonprofit experience as he prepared to assume his new job heading Generation Next, an organization that aims to close the racial achievement gap.
His legacy is selling the city, “really highlighting the attributes of this community. ... He’s been an effective and creative spokesperson for Minneapolis.”
Others say he will be remembered for his outreach to young people, which was on display at the First Avenue event, a fundraiser for the STEP-UP program that matches minority youths with internships. Several participants shared how Rybak’s mentorship is helping steer them toward the career they want. Touxhue Matthew Vue, a student at the University of Minnesota, said that the mayor wrote him an unprompted recommendation letter when he told Rybak how nervous he was about getting into college.
Amid so much activity, Rybak’s office is barely packed up, even as the whiteboard in the common area outside it has instructions scrawled in red marker about the big move and two varieties of empty boxes lean against the wall.
So many mementos
Questions still linger about what to do with the myriad gifts presented to Rybak over the years, and his wife, Megan O’Hara, “has made it very clear that she loves what I’ve done here, but all of this stuff is not coming into the house.”
• There’s the oversized shovel from the groundbreaking of Target Field, which Rybak said he doesn’t remember “where the heck it came from” because he didn’t attend the event.
• A red, white and blue quilt presented by the White Earth Indian Band that Rybak can’t figure out should belong to the city of Minneapolis or to him (his name is stitched on it).
• A large, goofy puppet from the fringe festival that he has grown to love, but knows that if it were in the living room and somebody was coming around the corner at 3 a.m. it would startle them. “What do you do with it?” he asked.
Rybak’s aides have made further progress on their packing, writing briefing memos for Hodges’ staff and preparing to move boxes of archives down to Hodges’ temporary office in Room 115, which is still largely empty. Most of the wall hangings remain, including a large photo of his inauguration in the City Hall rotunda featuring the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, in the crowd.
Much has changed since Rybak took office as a political novice who defeated two-term Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton.
People treated him in the beginning “like he was going to burn something down because he was so new and they didn’t expect him to win,” said Peter Wagenius, Rybak’s policy director.
Now, he said, Rybak “doesn’t seek to make everybody happy the way he did back in his first term. It’s more important to get things done.”