Downtown Minneapolis, the state’s largest commercial and entertainment hub, is ready for what will be a slow revival.
The COVID-19 public health crisis that morphed into a likely recession has reversed course for a downtown that was on a multiyear construction boom.
North Loop to Downtown East boasts 200,000-plus workers, 50,000 residents and hundreds of businesses at full tilt. However, we are months away from busy offices, farmers markets, restaurants, and cultural and sports events.
The U.S. economy shrank nearly 5% in the first quarter of the year. It will be much worse in the second quarter, which ends in June. Unemployment is flirting with Great Depression levels.
Gov. Tim Walz has further opened up the economy in a move that is too timid for some.
Yet in a webcast discussion on Wednesday moderated by Downtown Council CEO Steve Cramer, several business leaders embraced the go-slow reopening of the economy, in deference to public health experts who caution that a rush would lead to an acceleration of the coronavirus and a prolonged economic shock.
It will be a monthslong return at best to “normal,” including prolonged telecommuting to help social distancing in workplaces.
The Downtown Improvement District (DID) ambassadors have made good use of downtime. These are the friendly blue-and-yellow-jacketed folks who make 120 blocks of downtown cleaner, greener and safer.
Several hundred private-property owners in the district since 2009 have agreed to a special tax to finance the ambassadors and the work that makes downtown a welcoming place for business, employees, residents and visitors.
“I miss the workers, the people we start to see on the streets as the weather warms,” said Dave Hallenberger, 62, a onetime power plant security guard who has been a downtown ambassador for 11 years. “I have a sense of accomplishment every day. And people often thank me for my work.”
Hallenberger and teammates have focused on a longer-than-normal list of projects, such as deep cleaning of bus stops, tree grates and sidewalks, as well as greening tasks. Ambassadors remind us that courtesy, a smile, helpfulness and disposing properly of trash and recycling are traits of good citizens.
Ambassadors are on the street daily until 11 p.m., with a focus on visitor-assistance and safety in the evenings. They don’t confront ne’er-do-wells, but keep a sharp eye, check business properties and call police when necessary.
Violent crime in Minneapolis has declined for years. But last summer’s high-profile robberies and assaults, usually during late hours around the Hennepin-North Loop entertainment district, prompted calls for more police.
This year, personal crimes have declined amid less traffic but burglaries have risen, said Shane Zahn, DID’s veteran director of safety initiatives.
“There have been more burglaries and stolen bikes with fewer people around,” Zahn said. “Even our operations center was broken into in the [Leamington transit complex]. They stole radios and jackets. And those suspects were apprehended, thanks to video cameras and the police. With bars closed, there have been fewer [crimes and] arrests.”
The Nicollet Mall foot-patrol officer, sometimes joined by other officers, will be on patrol again this week.
Zahn is particularly proud of DID work with the police, including officers who work specifically with homeless people.
“There are six specialized ambassadors who are on our ‘livability’ team,” Zahn said. “They coordinate with police and Youth Link. We’re working on homelessness. Social service intervention. We’re taking a coordinated approach.
“We partnered with Salvation Army Harbor Lights, the 1010 Currie Av. shelter; so that they keep the doors open all day. Three meals. Movies. Social distancing. They are not forced out from 7 to 9 a.m. to the streets.
“Hennepin County and the city are moving elderly people from shelters into hotels. There are a lot of seniors experiencing homelessness. They need shelter. And they can be crime victims, particularly after they get Social Security checks after the first of the month.”
This is a tough business. And Zahn fully supports arrest and prosecution of predatory criminals.
He also speaks affirmatively of former homeless, alcoholics and drug addicts, that the police, DID and other partners, such as Youth Link and St. Stephen’s Human Services, helped find stable housing and even get a job downtown.
DID, a $6.6 million annual operation, has assisted 1 million-plus citizens since inception. Ambassadors removed 50,000 graffiti tags, scraped 600,000 gum spots from the sidewalk and moved tons of garbage and recyclables.
DID folks, who inspire a better citizenry, create a worthy welcome for locals and visitors downtown.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.