Admit it: Downtown Minneapolis is not the kind of clean, secure and attractive urban center that consistently embraces visitors and inspires civic pride. In fact, too many public spaces and private properties suffer from obvious neglect and, at certain times of day in some locations, walking the streets can be downright scary.

It's time for the private sector to step up and do what city government is failing to accomplish: Make downtown Minneapolis a cleaner, greener, safer and more attractive environment for residents, workers and visitors. After years of discussion and planning, that opportunity is almost here.

Sometime after Labor Day, the City Council is expected to vote on whether to authorize an improvement district that would cover most of downtown. About 600 properties would be assessed, and an estimated $6.5 million would be raised the first year.

The money would be spent on a long list of initiatives intended to bolster public safety, clean up downtown streets, improve maintenance and repair and make the area more attractive and eventually more lively. A board made up of representatives of the downtown properties would determine exactly how the money would be spent, and it would hire service providers to do the work.

There's nothing especially groundbreaking about the plan: Similar districts have been around since the 1970s, and there are more than 1,000 in the country today in cities such as Denver, Portland and Seattle. In fact several smaller districts already are in place in Minneapolis.

But because of the size of the proposed district -- and the potential impact on a community asset as important as downtown Minneapolis -- it's an opportunity that shouldn't be wasted. It also comes at a time when it's desperately needed.

Some property owners question why the city isn't doing more for downtown. The answer should be obvious: While more of the city's budget has been spent to stem violent crime in key neighborhoods in recent years, services such as street maintenance have suffered, and downtown is showing the wear and tear.

"... Passing this business improvement district is the single most important thing we could do to improve downtown -- ever,'' says Council Member Lisa Goodman, whose ward includes the heart of the city.

Government would be expected to maintain existing services -- and you can bet property owners hit with assessments would be watching to make sure they do -- but the private sector would have the funds, expertise and control necessary to improve what Downtown Council consultant Sarah Harris refers to as the city's ecosystem.

The Downtown Council has spearheaded the improvement district push, and it's currently meeting with property owners and businesses and will circulate the petition necessary to prompt City Council action. Downtown Council Chairman David Sternberg, a senior vice president with the firm Brookfield Properties, said property owners should take control of the city's front yard. He's absolutely right.

Successfully executed, the district would make downtown a better place to work, live and play. Recruiting and retaining employees would be easier. Restaurants, clubs and entertainment venues would benefit. More people would want to live downtown.

The payback for the building owners and tenants who pay the annual assessments would be real: Property values would rise along with quality of life. It would be a much-needed investment in the city's future, and it couldn't come at a better time.