ST. CLOUD - The wide streets of this central Minnesota city were empty Thursday afternoon. You could get a table at any restaurant in town, no waiting. Coffeehouses offered a fresh cuppa but had few takers. The bookstore? Empty. Ditto for Herbergers, where signs enticed with 75 percent off sales.
As legislators fan out to St. Cloud and points across the state in search of ideas for dealing with a collapsed economy and underwater state budget, they may get an earful -- but not of solutions.
"They want answers?" snorted Mark Barth, 53, co-owner of the Veranda Lounge, a coffeehouse/wine bar/playhouse in the heart of downtown. "I'm no expert. I'm just a small-businessman at a family business where I work my heart out. That's why we send legislators to St. Paul, to come up with answers."
But problems? Barth and most anyone you stop in St. Cloud can tell you plenty.
"People still come out for entertainment, so that's good for us, but this city needs jobs," Barth said.
Erin Murphy splits her time between managing the Veranda and grinding through her sixth year at St. Cloud State University, where she's studying film and marketing. "It's taking a long time, but I can't do it any other way because I'm paying as I go," Murphy said.
Uppermost in her mind? Tuition. Hers has escalated from $2,000 a semester when she started to $2,500. A single textbook cost her $171 -- used. "I can't afford any more increases," she said.
On the surface, St. Cloud would seem to have the all-American recipe for prosperity. One of the state's fastest-growing cities in the past decade, it boasts rail and bus lines and its own airport. Public and private colleges provide a vitality and intellectual life, and the city's economy is diverse, with foundries, factories, printers, banking and agriculture.
But nothing has protected St. Cloud from the all-fronts recession that has nearly stalled the American engine in recent months.
Electrolux, the city's fifth-largest employer, is in its second round of layoffs -- the one that caught Richard Hilliard, 44, and Duane Erickson, 40, who worked the freezer plant line until two weeks ago.
"We didn't get caught in the first round, but we got caught in the second," Hilliard said, running a hand over his unshaven face. Both men have been laid off before, Hilliard twice since getting downsized from a 16-year stint at an optical company.
"Right now, I'm trying to live on the little bit of unemployment I've got and wait till they call me back, but right now I think this could be an extended vacation," Hilliard said with a grim laugh.
Erickson says he would like to stay in St. Cloud. "I met a nice lady, we've been dating 11 months," he said shyly. "But I'm scared. That's what I'd tell them [legislators]. I'm scared. How long is this going to last? How much worse is it going to get?"
Hilliard's advice is just one word long: Jobs. "I'd tell them anything they can do to create jobs," he said. "We just need jobs."
DFL legislators hit St. Cloud, Mankato and Rochester on Thursday evening. Others will make their way across the state today and next week on a "listening tour," seeking advice on how to cope with what is shaping up to be the most fearsome economic downturn since the Great Depression. Despite new federal money, legislators are looking at what could be a $7 billion two-year budget deficit and red ink stretching years out.
Thursday's meeting at St. Cloud City Hall packed more than 250 residents into the council chambers to hear a grim recounting of the state's condition and a plea from legislators for "specific" ideas.
The first citizen to speak was the Rev. Randy Johnson of St. Cloud, who said, "If you're hoping that by starting with a pastor you'll get a miracle, you'll have to keep on praying."
Johnson said he was there representing "legions" of people who are willing to "do their fair share on taxes."
But Billy Woolsey of Anderson Trucking Service said that new taxes on business would hurt and could force his family-owned company, headquartered in St. Cloud for more than half a century, to move to surrounding states where taxes are lower.
The person-on-the-street advice in St. Cloud earlier Thursday was just as divided.
"Raising taxes is not the answer," said Brian Myres, of ING Direct, an online banking service that recently opened the stylish ING Direct Cafe, an island of mandarin orange, bright blue and cream that pops off a corner of the otherwise staid, granite-and-concrete Midwestern business district. "People are losing jobs every day. We need to get rid of whatever barriers there are to growth."
Myres likes the idea of consolidating county services into regional hubs, something Gov. Tim Pawlenty has suggested, and said legislators should go further. The state's 87 counties "are a holdover from the days when the county seat had to be within a day's buggy ride. We don't need it."
That idea doesn't sit so well with his table mate, Greg Randle, a human services supervisor with Stearns County. "I have no idea what a move like that could mean for me," Randle said, fingering his mid-morning coffee. "That could affect my financial stability. I don't know what the answers are. This economy leaves everyone feeling vulnerable."
'That's my living'
Sandy Kierzek, 48, a hairdresser in Avon, Minn., who was shopping the sale rack at Herbergers, said she could see extending the sales tax to clothing. "I'd never miss it," she said. "But income tax? No way. That's a spot where you don't want to be touched."
Andrew Nordin travels a solid hour from his home in New London to jobs in St. Cloud and Hutchinson, where he cobbles together a living teaching art at two colleges.
"I work for the state of Minnesota," he said, hands jammed into pockets against the cold as he walked to his car. "When they talk about budget cuts, that's my living they're talking about."
"I don't know what they should do," he said, shaking his head.
"I just can't believe our economy was so fragile."
Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288