As any nonnative Minnesotan knows, people who move here may never feel that they belong to the club of people from here.
The cultural reference points can bewilder even a longtime transplant: "Lunch with Casey," with its signature birthday song ("Happy happy birthday, to every girl and boy"). A long-ago Time magazine cover heralding Minnesota as "The state that works." The Bedtime Nooz. And, looming above them all, a 12-story downtown Minneapolis edifice called Dayton's.
It was the flagship of a chain of department stores, and somehow more than a department store. Dayton's was a symbol of a prosperous Midwest, a place that took shopping to a new level, where style and opulence were not foreign imports but expressions of our own self-worth. It was as much a community institution as any bank — and in fact young office workers would cash their paychecks there. Through its holiday window displays and in-store Santas, it became a focus of family traditions.
Dayton's was not merely the commercial heart of downtown — it was a cultural hub as well. When it left the city, successor stores found they could occupy its space but never quite replace it.
So if nostalgia can fuel a new enterprise within the hull of the old flagship, there is every reason to cheer the new Dayton's Project. While grafting a new identity onto the space, the developers have wisely chosen also to embrace the old one. The familiar Dayton's signs are back. The holiday window displays are back. The grand piano is back. Santa bears are back.
And the customers? We'll see. The downtown business environment is challenged, to put it mildly. Office space sits empty, many of its former inhabitants having discovered the economy and comfort of working from home. A surging crime rate makes some people afraid to leave their homes, let alone venture downtown in the evening, and a hollowed-out police force lacks the personnel or resources to do much about it. The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting Minnesota harder than any other state at the moment, another reason to stay home — an entirely valid reason, at that.
But there is no getting around it: Pandemic or no pandemic, downtown Minneapolis sorely needs an economic shot in the arm. As well as more people on its streets and in its skyways. And more energy, vitality and class.
Mayor Jacob Frey, moments before cutting the ribbon to open the facility last week, was explicit in his comments to a shivering crowd gathered on the sidewalk. "Downtown is open for business," he said. "Come on back!"
The project is visually engaging, with lots of tangible reminders of the Dayton's legacy. But the character of the enterprise remains defined by what is missing as much as by what's in place. More permanent restaurants and stores, as well as a food court, are planned but not yet present. More office tenants are needed.
The Dayton's Project has a running start with its anchor (and only) office tenant, Ernst & Young. The consulting and accountancy firm had moved only a few blocks, from the nearby U.S. Bank Plaza, so its presence at Dayton's does not change the downtown employment picture. But it does put a few hundred people in close proximity to the 35 vendors who have come together to populate a street-level "makers market" selling food and craft items.
We wish the Dayton's Project every success as it seeks to lure more business into its space. What was true before is true once again: A healthy Dayton's can help make a healthier downtown.