St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter stood in Rice Park on Sept. 29 and credited 16 downtown Street Team members, paid for by a new Downtown Improvement District, for cleaning up garbage, graffiti and crime in the capital city's business and cultural core.
But the good vibes didn't last long. Less than two weeks later, a shootout at a bar less than a mile away killed one woman and injured at least 14 others. Just like that, downtown St. Paul's rebranding hit a speed bump as business owners and residents shared what they said are ongoing frustrations with crime and police staffing shortages.
As president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance — which formed in 2018 — it's been Joe Spencer's job to help reinvigorate the city's business and cultural core. Eye on St. Paul recently chatted with Spencer about ongoing efforts to foster downtown, especially in the wake of the Seventh Street Truck Park shooting. This interview was edited for length.
Q: First the COVID-19 pandemic, then crime concerns amplified by the Truck Park shooting. What is the biggest challenge facing downtown?
A: Really, it's that we just don't have all our people back. But, even with what happened on West Seventh, we're seeing it happen. The Ordway is back, with chamber concerts and shows. The Fitzgerald. The Palace Theatre is hosting again.
But the biggest thing for safety is to be around people. [Safety will improve] when our people are back.
Q: How do you make that happen?
A: Our work is really about setting the table. We worked very hard this summer and put on more than 300 events to welcome people back downtown. That work is continuing. We have the Downtown Improvement District, the public safety center, the Street Teams. So when people are ready to come back, it's important for them to know that downtown is ready for them.
Q: A number of downtown business leaders, including executives from Ecolab and Securian Financial, two of the largest employers in downtown St. Paul, have urged Mayor Carter to do more to prevent violent crime. Securian CEO Christopher Hilger wrote that safety concerns could affect the company's ability to recruit and retain workers. Do you want to see a greater police presence downtown?
A: Yes. We do. And the city has taken steps, including spending $1 million in police overtime — as well as increasing [homeless] shelter capacity — to improve the atmosphere downtown. Those continue to be important.
Q: What has you optimistic about the future of downtown St. Paul?
A: Our nights and weekends really came back pretty well this summer. We know that when we throw events, people are going to come out, head to their favorite restaurant. People really like coming downtown for the fun stuff. Another thing is that the residential population of downtown has doubled in the past 10 years [to more than 10,000]. That kind of growth is going to support the kinds of amenities that will make it a more dynamic downtown.
Q: It seems as if downtown St. Paul was trending up when the pandemic shut much of it down. Can you get back there?
A: We see change happening in large and small ways. I absolutely believe [downtown] St. Paul will be the kind of place where you can see fun activities on any corner. It's not going to happen overnight, but I think it's going to continue.