St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman gave his swan song state of the city address on Wednesday, touching on most of the major themes of his nearly 12 years in office — from basics such as public safety to grander plans for the future.
He has also focused on equity and expanding opportunities for all in a city that is now 40 percent people of color. On that score, city government has led by example. Coleman announced that St. Paul has already exceeded its goal to have 23 percent employees of color by the end of 2017.
Coleman, a DFL candidate for governor, cited several positive developments from the past year, including this month’s opening of the beautifully remodeled Palace Theater downtown, striking a development deal for the former Macy’s building now known as the Treasure Island Centers, the sale of the Penfield development and its return to the tax rolls, and the opening of the Higher Ground St. Paul shelter for the homeless.
Coleman’s mayoral tenure has been marked by valleys as well as peaks. In 2010, he was criticized for not being tough enough on Department of Public Works staffers who were caught loafing on the job. The right-of-way assessment program he inherited was successfully challenged in court, leaving the city with a $15 million to $30 million budget hole and concerned residents who already feel that taxes are too high. Like all cities, St. Paul suffered through the Great Recession.
But it’s easy to make a case that the city is healthier today, in part because of Coleman’s vision and leadership on projects such as CHS Field in Lowertown, the Central Corridor light-rail line and the new soccer stadium being built at Snelling and University avenues. The city’s population exceeds 300,000 for the first time since 1970, and more people are moving to the revitalized downtown.
In an interview with the Editorial Board this week, Coleman said he had hoped for more progress on improving educational outcomes and on addressing the needs of preschoolers. And he acknowledged that at the same time more employers and taxpaying residents have come to the city, concentrations of poverty have also increased.
Some of those who hope to succeed him argue that funds spent on theaters and stadiums would be better used in neighborhoods or for basic city services like roads, snowplowing and public safety.
That’s a debate worth having, but there is no debating that St. Paul is a stronger city today than it was a decade ago.