The crowd that squeezed into the Astoria Cafe on St. Paul's W. 7th Street was about three dozen people, far more than Council Member Rebecca Noecker usually sees at her coffee shop open houses for constituents.
The owner of a restaurant down the street worried the prior weekend's mass shooting, which left a woman dead and a dozen injured, could scare away customers. One resident, an educator, said she's felt unsafe walking her students to a nearby park since a homeless day shelter opened in the neighborhood. Another asked about Police Department staffing.
"I know it has not been an easy time, but I have every confidence in this area. There is such a spirit here," said Noecker, who represents the W. 7th Street neighborhood, as well as adjacent downtown.
Public and private investments have poured into St. Paul's urban core in recent years, partly in an effort to shake its notoriously sleepy reputation. But traffic from office workers and entertainment seekers came to an abrupt halt at the start of the pandemic, which, as in cities nationwide, also fueled an increase in crime.
Anxiety among St. Paul residents and business owners in and around downtown has grown as a result, feelings that came to a head after the mass shooting — the largest in recent city history — leaving locals casting blame and leaders scrambling to preserve calm.
"What happened on W. 7th Street has never happened in St. Paul before," Police Chief Todd Axtell said. "And I have no reason to believe, based on the intelligence that I have at this time, that it will ever happen again."
Two men — one accusing the other of abusing a relative — are facing multiple charges of attempted murder in the Oct. 10 shootings at Seventh Street Truck Park, a bar and restaurant a block south of the Xcel Energy Center. Terry Lorenzo Brown, who is charged in the murder of 27-year-old bar patron Marquisha Wiley, previously was convicted of felonies that made it illegal for him to possess a gun.
The shootings came less than two weeks after city officials and business leaders celebrated a 23% decrease in summer crime downtown compared with 2020. In an interview Friday, Mayor Melvin Carter said the reduction was achieved by coupling $1 million to support overtime police patrols with alternative public safety efforts like the Downtown Alliance's Street Team Ambassadors — non-police patrols who clean the area, engage community members and act as a second set of eyes for law enforcement.
"Our downtown is moving in the right direction by all data points," Carter said, noting that the number of people living in outdoor encampments in St. Paul dropped from 380 to 24 in the past year. Since taking office in 2018, the mayor has advocated for a "community-first" approach to public safety that aims to address the root causes of crime by spending money on programs and resources that engage and support residents, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods.
"That horrible, horrible mass shooting that we experienced this past weekend felt like a punch in the stomach to all of us. I think we should take it as a reminder that we have real long-term work to do that's got to be fundamentally different than what we've done in the past," said Carter, who is up for re-election in November.
But some residents and business owners have expressed concerns that the mayor's strategy is not doing enough to reverse other crime trends in St. Paul. According to police, through September, 202 people were struck by gunfire in the city, up from 168 people during the same time frame in 2020 and 124 in that period in 2019.
Thirty-two people have died by homicide this year, putting the city on track to surpass the record-tying 34 killings reported in 2020. That count includes last month's quadruple homicide that investigators believe took place outside the White Squirrel bar, also on W. 7th Street.
Executives from Ecolab and Securian, two of the largest employers in downtown St. Paul, sent letters last week urging 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.
"The future of our city as a place to live, play, work and invest is at stake," Hilger wrote.
Tony Moline, general manager of the Bulldog restaurant and bar in Lowertown, said he recently moved to the suburbs after living downtown for 13 years. Restaurateur Brian Ingram, who owns Hope Breakfast Bar just off W. 7th Street, said he is delaying plans to open a new supper club and tiki bar across from the Xcel Energy Center until local leaders do more to curtail crime.
"It's just so infuriating to hear them say crime is down," said Ingram, who shortened his restaurant hours out of concerns for staff safety. "We're all about making a difference in our community, but you can be for that and against crime."
Ingram and others say the city has failed to address what they call "quality-of-life" issues tied to the Freedom House, a day shelter for people experiencing homelessness that opened on W. 7th Street in January. Business owners have reported people yelling at customers, urinating or defecating in public, vandalizing cars and using drugs.
The City Council will vote next month on zoning changes that could allow similar drop-in centers to open in other parts of the city. Police repeatedly have said the mass shooting at Truck Park was not associated with the shelter, but some neighbors have pointed to both to raise concerns about the area's future.
In response, St. Paul police officers and Ramsey County Sheriff's deputies will extend special patrols in the W. 7th Street area by five hours, until 2 a.m.
Axtell has called for sweeping action to address rising crime, saying police, prosecutors and judges need to do more to "make sure there's a high level of accountability for people who continue to spin in the revolving door of the criminal justice system."
The chief also has publicly clashed with Carter over funding for the Police Department, describing his force as short-staffed, exhausted and unable to do all the preventive investigations they once did.
"No matter how many officers were patrolling the street, that shooting most likely would have happened," Axtell said. "But if we have enough investigators in our gang and gun unit, which we've had to deplete to be on the streets, we can be more proactive."
Carter has responded that Axtell's comment reflects an acknowledgment "that our police officers can't do everything by themselves — which is why our entire goal is to build out this kind of comprehensive, coordinated data-driven approach to public safety." He's also called for stricter state and federal gun measures.
Joe Spencer, president of St. Paul's Downtown Alliance, said while employees' return to work will be crucial, entertainment venues like the Palace Theatre, the Amsterdam Bar and Hall and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts recently have started to draw small crowds.
Access to those amenities is part of the reason that Colleen and Gene Trantanella moved downtown seven years ago.
The couple has looked at townhouses away from the city "once in a while," Gene said. And the Truck Park shooting has made them "even more leery," prompting them to switch walking routes to avoid certain areas, Colleen added.
But as they enjoyed beverages at the Bulldog on Thursday, Colleen said they're planning to stay where they are.
Said her husband: "We don't want to give up on St. Paul."
Staff writers Zoë Jackson and James Walsh contributed to this report.