Strolling through the streets of a Chinese city where millions of visitors gather each winter to see buildings, slides and sculptures built from snow and ice, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges picked up some inspiration to bring home to Minnesota.
After returning from her visit to the chilly city of Harbin in northeast China — one of Minneapolis' dozen sister cities — the mayor said she believes there's more the Twin Cities can do to embrace our frigid winters, and maybe even persuade more visitors to join us.
"In Harbin, from the mayor on down, no one is apologetic about winter," Hodges said. "No one complains about it. They see it as the key asset for the city of Harbin, and the Snow and Ice Festival that they've been doing for 31 years now is the pinnacle of that. They promote themselves as the 'winter city,' and they're proud of that."
Hodges, along with Council Member John Quincy, two representatives from Meet Minneapolis — CEO Melvin Tennant and Bill Deef, vice president of international relations — and Ralph Beha, a board member of the Minnesota chapter of the U.S.-China Peoples Friendship Association, spent the first few days of the year exploring the festival and participating in a forum of leaders from other cold-weather cities around the world.
It was Hodges' first mayoral visit to a sister city, and the delegation hoped to build relationships that could lead to educational and cultural exchange programs and pick up ideas for bringing visitors to Minneapolis during the city's quietest time for tourism.
Hodges marveled at Harbin's display of snow and ice sculptures. It was enough, she said, to amount to a small city. On a frozen river, the city operates a winter amusement park, complete with bumper cars on ice, sledding, skating and games. Hodges said the event was packed, even while temperatures matched those in the Twin Cities.
The event is such a big deal for the city of 10 million that the city shuts down its offices and many people take the day off for opening day of the monthlong festival.
While Hodges said she isn't ready to put a permanent snow day on the city's calendar, she does want Minneapolis to emulate Harbin's attitude about the cold.
"I have always said that winter is one of our assets and one that we undersell and underutilize," she said.
Tennant said he was particularly interested in conversations the delegation had with Canadian leaders from Edmonton, Alberta.
That city has launched a campaign to get its residents to "fall in love with winter," by reminding adults of the ways in which they enjoyed spending time outside as kids. For example, the city made it easier for people to cross-country ski to the train station.
"Though it's great to do fantastic, over-the-top events, you really want to make it accessible to everybody," Tennant said.
Back in Minneapolis, the mayor said she's preparing for a handful of big initiatives launching in the first part of the year. The team of experts she convened as a "Cradle to K Cabinet" is expected to release a draft of its recommendations later in January, and the city is preparing to hire staffers to oversee work funded by a Bloomberg Philanthropies grant that will provide up to $2.7 million over the next three years.
That grant will fund research on how equitably the city provides basic services to all residents.