It’s going to take $22 million in donated money to fully realize the plan for the Downtown East Commons park, envisioned as the kind of civic jewel that should inspire the generosity of the corporate community.
There are enough Fortune 500 public companies in the state, along with giants like privately held Cargill and Ireland-based Medtronic, that a million bucks from each would wrap up this campaign pretty quickly.
Well, that was wishful thinking.
The organization in charge of the fundraising for the Downtown East Commons, called Green Minneapolis, this month announced that it had raised not quite half of what’s needed to complete the project, including some money for operations. And some of the more ambitious features of the park’s design have been put on hold.
“Clearly, raising the remaining money will be a heavy lift,” said Jacob Frey, a Minneapolis City Council member and a champion of the Commons project, “but there are business players coming out of the woodwork, … understanding the necessity of the space.”
So far the donors to the park, to be just outside the doors of the new stadium being built for the Minnesota Vikings, include Target Corp. and Xcel Energy. There are actually a number of other companies on board, too, but they all seem to have already had a stake in either the Vikings or the greater Downtown East project, which of course includes two new office buildings for Wells Fargo & Co.
Protecting their investment explains the generosity of Wells and the Ryan Cos., the developer that envisioned and then has been building the whole Downtown East project. The construction company Veit is a donor, too.
Then there’s Carlson and the Carlson Family Foundation. If money is coming from the foundation, that certainly sounds like philanthropy, except, of course, that Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group has announced a Minneapolis Downtown East location for one of the first of its new Radisson Red hotels.
With the new park right by its new hotel, it would have looked bad had Carlson sat out the fundraising for the Commons.
Thrivent Financial is both a donor and the Fortune 500 company with headquarters closest to the park, and the company said in a statement it wants to support “green space” in its neighborhood.
Land O’Lakes, the big cooperative, has its headquarters in suburban Arden Hills. Two clicks of the mouse were all it took to see it wasn’t civic pride that drew it to the Commons.
For this big dairy and agricultural products business, it seems NFL football continues to be a hard-to-pass-up advertising opportunity. Land O’Lakes has signed on to be one of the Vikings’ “founding partners” in U.S. Bank Stadium, with exclusive rights to advertise in the categories it cares about, like dairy products.
For the other companies in the region being hit up for money, though, there is no investment here to protect. The pitch to them has to be investing in a new piece of civic infrastructure. That would have been easier for them to swallow had this public project been only a little less private.
A lot of things have changed in the plans for the Commons, but the agreement for its uses hasn’t. The Vikings still have the right to book events in both blocks of the Commons for Vikings home games plus some additional days. With the stadium authority getting the easterly part of the Commons for up to 40 days per year, together it’s up to 80 days out of a year.
An adjacent parking lot at the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office has been secured to take some of the pressure off in setting up and taking down structures used in events, but there “is a fair critique that the use agreement provides far too many days to other entities,” Frey said. “But if it’s additional activities open to the public, that’s a good thing.”
It’s true that on Vikings game days the Commons won’t be roped off for just the ticket holders. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine anyone without an interest in light beer, purple clothing or football wanting to go within a mile of the place.
So maybe the Commons turns out to be just a smaller version of the nearby billion-dollar-plus U.S. Bank Stadium.
Sure, it’s great to get an urban park with the potential for fun events, just like it’s great to have a state-of-the-art football palace here. It still seems remarkable that the National Football League would even consider holding a global event like its Super Bowl here in the middle of a Minnesota winter, and building U.S. Bank Stadium is what made getting the 2018 game possible.
But as in the case of a football stadium that took a half-billion dollars of public money to build, the biggest beneficiary of the Commons is a professional football franchise and its owners. The Vikings kicked in $1 million to help buy and prepare the park site, and $2 million of the $22 million that’s needed for the full Commons budget. That’s not enough, not for an asset that’s uniquely valuable to this privately held company.
In a visit last week with Steve Cramer of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, the umbrella group that’s helped launch the Commons fundraising, he acknowledged that the private use of the park by the Vikings and others has been an issue in lining up donors.
He sure sounded confident about getting to the full amount, though. He held up a densely detailed spreadsheet of prospects that he kept a foot or two out of focus, to keep the names confidential, making the point that there are a lot of potential donors still in the pipeline. The effort to pitch wealthy families or their foundations, he added, was just getting started.
That seems to be a smart place to go next when looking for more money, because with the exception of a couple of logical candidates not yet heard from, the Twin Cities corporate community might well be done putting money into this project.
The people running these big companies are savvy enough to easily spot a deal that doesn’t quite seem fair.