Inside Dunn Bros. at Fifth and Wabasha on a snowy morning, a half-dozen patrons chat softly in easy chairs facing the gas fireplace. Others studiously tap at laptops on nearby tables, occasionally glancing up at those coming in for a warm cup of caffeine. Coffee grinding, milk steaming, background music—it’s harmoniously, white-noise peaceful. And then a noisy crew of teenagers tumbles in—a bunch of chattering, artsy-looking, cell phone–checking kids. They electrify the place for about a half-hour before flowing back outside and down the street, followed by a comet’s tail of exuberance.
The kids may have come from the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists or McNally Smith College of Music. They may have visited because of the hipster businesses around the corner: Big Table, a poster shop and studio, and Eclipse, a used vinyl-record store. Either way, their mere presence in downtown St. Paul is a marked change from years past, and a metaphor for the wave of fresh energy coming into a central business district (CBD) that has been too quiet in recent years—and shed thousands of jobs in the past decade.
Construction is humming once again. Crews are continuing work on the Central Corridor light rail line; when completed next year, it will connect central St. Paul with downtown Minneapolis. Workers also are preparing for the St. Paul Saints ballpark, which is scheduled to be ready for the 2014 season. Elsewhere, ground has been broken on the Penfield, a recession-delayed residential building that also will house a Lunds supermarket.
To some, the new ballpark for the Saints—technically not even a minor league team—might also be a metaphor for a city that has resigned itself to a minor league downtown, especially compared with its Minneapolis counterpart. The closing of Macy’s, the city’s last downtown department store, points to slim retail pickings. (It also adds a big challenge: What’s to be done with the five-story windowless building smack in the middle of the city center?) And in mid-January, there were reports that Infor Lawson, the chief tenant of Class A office jewel Lawson Commons, might move most or all of its 630 workers out of the city.
On the other hand, St. Paul remains home to employers Ecolab and Securian Financial Group, as well as the Capitol complex and related state government activity. And more importantly, other employers, mostly smaller, have been moving in or expanding here (see box, page 34). As they do, they support the refreshed vision for this city center, one that sees downtown as an intimate neighborhood as well as a business hub, and one whose future relies on its ability to lure back some of those kids who came into Dunn Bros. just now, once they’re a little older.
Compared with Minneapolis’ CBD, downtown St. Paul is an introvert. Its streets are narrower and less trafficked, its buildings are smaller and older (many beautifully so), making it a gratifying area for walkers. Outside of the Xcel Center, its entertainment venues are focused more on higher-brow culture (the Ordway, public television and radio, theaters, and museums) than on clubbing and cocktails. It’s a city with quirks, notably its charmingly (or infuriatingly) idiosyncratic numbering system. Looking for 345 Cedar St.? It’s between Fourth and Fifth streets. The DoubleTree Hotel at 411 Minnesota St.? Between Sixth and Seventh, of course.
To visit the mayor, you enter the hushed interior of City Hall on Fourth Street, underneath a bas-relief of a stylized downtown scene from the 1930s, when the building was constructed. A leisurely elevator takes you to the third-floor office of Chris Coleman, mayor since 2006. Outside of a few computers, the somber, sepia-toned interior looks unchanged from, oh, 1959.
On that same winter morning, Coleman and Cecile Bedor, the head of the city’s Department of Planning and Economic Development, sit down at a large conference table and talk optimistically about their city’s core. “Downtowns aren’t the only game in town, but in many ways they define the overall vitality of the community,” Coleman says. If a city’s downtown in struggling, “first of all, you lose a tremendous economic base,” he says. What’s more, downtown “is a first impression for people for whether they want to invest in your community, if a business wants to come in.” A city’s CBD “can define your community in a way that no single neighborhood can do.”
Coleman’s observations trigger memories of St. Paul’s past efforts to jump-start development after its downtown began declining as a retail destination in the ’60s and ’70s. Town Square (1980), Galtier Plaza (1986), and the Minnesota World Trade Center (1987) were big projects combining retail space with office or residential components. All flopped, at least as they were originally envisioned. That said, both World Trade (now Wells Fargo Center) and Galtier (renamed for its anchor tenant, Cray, Inc., which moved there in 2009 from its suburban location) have become successful office towers.
The Ordway Center
St. Paul has also had major league victories: the Ordway Center for the Arts, a refreshed riverfront featuring the RiverCentre complex and Science Museum, and the Xcel Energy Center have stimulated development down West Seventh Street and brought business to restaurants in downtown proper. What’s noteworthy is that the city isn’t looking to land major wins going forward. “We’ve hit the home runs,” Coleman says. Now it’s time to fill in around anchors such as the Xcel Center, the Ordway, Ecolab’s headquarters, and the recently renovated Union Depot.
Some may dispute that the Saints ballpark and the Central Corridor Green Line are home runs, but they at least have the smack of solid triples. Coleman credits his own salesmanship, as well as crucial support from the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and the Port Authority. “You had the Port Authority, who was our partner in acquiring the [ballpark] site,” he says. “You had the Chamber of Commerce, who was our key partner in rallying the business community and to lobby at the Legislature. You had our planning and economic development staff and our park staff, who put together the pieces of that. Every one of those partners that came to the table was vitally important.”
Coleman says that he’s in regular contact with the leadership of the Port Authority and the chamber, and representatives from each partner organization meet monthly with the city, taking turns as host. “I think the glue really is that [the hosts] are required to provide treats at those meetings,” jokes Bedor, who often represents City Hall at the confabs. “It’s not a hard partnership to maintain anymore because we all appreciate what we bring to the table.” Compared to what she suggests were less-than-chummy relations among these three entities in the past, “I think what has really changed is that we realize that we all want the same thing.”
The office of Matt Kramer, CEO and president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, is in the modern yet somehow cozy headquarters building of Securian Financial Group Inc. The insurance firm is one of downtown’s oldest and largest businesses. Kramer, who was Governor Tim Pawlenty’s chief of staff and later, economic development commissioner, grew up on the Minneapolis side of the river; from that vantage point, he observes that “for a community of 350,000 people, St. Paul is a small town in some ways. And it’s a lot easier to have those informal contacts that get business done, both at the political and business levels, than I think it is in Minneapolis.” He tells the story of lunching at the Downtowner Woodfire Grill on West Seventh. His lunch partner, a business colleague, looked around the room, then turned to Kramer and said, “We know about three-quarters of the people in the room.”
Because of this intimacy, Kramer thinks that it’s easier to get businesspeople aligned on issues and points to the ballpark project as an example: “We made it very well-known . . . to a Republican-controlled Legislature that this was the business community, of which a significant number were donors to the Republican Party, asking for this.”
The St. Paul Area Chamber isn’t focused on traditional civic boosterism, Kramer says, but rather on civic engagement—pushing for ways to improve the business environment. To that end, it’s pleased with the creation of the Central Corridor and the moves toward a more vibrant downtown. But to Kramer—who’s by no means alone in this opinion—there is something of a visual dead zone between the pastoral charm of Mears Park in Lowertown on the eastern edge and the European grace of Rice Park on the west end: a cadre of office buildings with no street-level appeal and largely blank façades. Kramer can imagine Saints fans after a game deciding to stroll from the ballpark to one of the attractions to the west, such as the Science Museum: “They’ll get two blocks into the walk and say, ‘Ewww! This doesn’t feel right.’ ” It’s a part of downtown that will need to be made less off-putting before the Saints fans and train riders arrive.
Besides the mayor, Kramer describes Louis Jambois, president of the St. Paul Port Authority, as “a key partner for us.” Jambois’ public entity runs 21 industrial parks and business centers in St. Paul, as well as the city’s riverside port facilities. “What we can do is help [Jambois] on some of their industrial development by not only bringing in members who might be interested in space, but chamber members who can tell the story of how important the Port Authority is to them,” Kramer says.
Jambois describes his organization as “a support player to the city of St. Paul” with respect to downtown. The Port Authority acquired the Diamond Products site in Lowertown as the location of the new ballpark. Upon closing the deal, the Port Authority flipped
it to the city, receiving in return Midway Stadium. Once the ballpark’s built, the Port Authority will tear down Midway, put in infrastructure, then sell the site to a business for redevelopment. Jambois hopes to have “at least a 200,000-square-foot-building on that site, with at least 200 to 300 good-paying jobs.”
That deal was just one reason Jambois describes 2012 as “a really good year” for the Port Authority. Another of its wins: the recruitment of Matsuura, a Japanese machining equipment firm, to occupy a Port Authority-built and -owned building in the Authority’s River Bend Business Center about a mile southwest of downtown on Randolph Avenue. Matsuura will bring customers from throughout North America to Minnesota to show off its equipment—and, he hopes, “show off downtown St. Paul.”
For Jambois, industrial development is allied with downtown development. “St. Paul is home to people who rely on the industrial development for jobs,” he says. A diverse economic base helps downtown by generating more economic activity. Many of the businesses using the city’s port are in sectors—agribusiness and manufacturing—that have generally done well in recent years. And the city, with about a third of its land mass occupied by tax-exempt structures, needs the tax revenue these businesses generate.
“It’s truly an integrated system,” Jambois says. “The more diversification we have as an economy—city, state, region—the stronger we’re going to be.”