Six months into a pandemic that’s turned downtowns into ghost towns, St. Paul officials are banking on a downtown improvement district that they say will aid the recovery of the Minnesota capital city’s business core.
Property owners representing downtown St. Paul institutions, including Securian Financial, Travelers Insurance, Ecolab and the InterContinental St. Paul Riverfront, have agreed to pay into a special service district similar to Minneapolis’ Downtown Improvement District. Those contributions, expected to top $600,000 a year, will fund a public safety communications center, neighborhood ambassadors and other amenities.
Downtown Alliance President Joe Spencer said the plan is to launch the Downtown Fusion Center — a component of Mayor Melvin Carter’s community-first public safety strategy — in 2021, followed by downtown ambassadors in 2022.
“We really see this as a great opportunity to get this foundation in place so that when we’re through this pandemic period, we can accelerate our recovery,” he said.
The City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing Wednesday on an ordinance establishing the Downtown Improvement District and will likely vote the following week. If the ordinance passes, property owners will have 45 days to register objections; if owners representing 35% of the land area in question object, then the district will be vetoed under state law.
That’s an unlikely outcome, given how many property owners are already on board. According to the Downtown Alliance, property owners representing more than 60% of the proposed district have signed petitions in support — more than twice what state law requires.
What’s more, the district would largely bypass downtown’s biggest property owner. Though Jim Crockarell could single-handedly veto an improvement district that encompassed the whole of downtown — and has already objected, through an attorney, to the inclusion of the Lowry Building — most of his properties are outside the proposed boundaries.
Council Member Rebecca Noecker, whose ward includes downtown, attributed the strong support from property owners to work that’s already been done to show them how a special service district would benefit them.
“I think people generally recognize that this is something that’s time has been long since due,” Noecker said. “Every bigger city in the country, and so many smaller cities, have a downtown improvement district.”