Editor’s Note-Programs that Work

Editor’s Note-Programs that Work

A contamination clean-up program has revitalized much of the Twin Cities, a small-cities renovation effort much of Greater Minnesota.

In the weeks preceding an election, it is tempting to use every available forum to encourage support for one’s favorite candidates (or to bait their opponents). I have valorously resisted that urge here. Instead, let me draw your attention to a pair of initiatives that will not be campaign issues—state programs that have worked well under several Minnesota governors. One is the Contamination Cleanup Grant Program of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), the subject of a feature in this issue.

As writer Fran Howard reports, property contaminated with petroleum, lead, mercury, arsenic, and a variety of carcinogenic solvents—euphemistically called “brownfield sites”—was a legacy of the heavy industry that began to depart the inner cities in the 1970s. In some cities, those sites remain canvases for graffiti and hangouts for vagrants—places abandoned as too expensive to redevelop. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, they have become locations for Mississippi riverfront condominiums, urban office parks, and retail showrooms.

The Metropolitan Council and individual municipalities contribute to cleaning contaminated sites, but DEED’s program is the largest. Given its effectiveness, though, you might be surprised at how small it is. Since its inception in 1995, the program has awarded more than $88 million in cleanup grants—$8 million per year. The funds have been used to reclaim 1,993 acres (think of three square miles plus 80 football fields) for redevelopment. The combined projects have resulted in 8,058 new housing units and hundreds of commercial properties that employ almost 26,000 Minnesotans, and have increased Minnesota’s tax base by more than $55.5 million.

Focus now on Greater Minnesota. Maybe you remember that in the 1980s, unemployment rates in the rest of the state were typically 50 percent higher than in the Twin Cities. That is no longer the case. A long national economic recovery, rising farm incomes, and the expansion of commodity-processing and other businesses have helped reduce that disparity to a few tenths of a percentage point. Public policies have also played a role.

In the past 10 years, DEED’s Small Cities Development Program has invested approximately $200 million to improve the central business districts, core residential areas, and public infrastructure of more than 385 non-metropolitan Minnesota cities. To receive funding, projects must benefit low- and moderate-income people, eliminate slums or blight, or address urgent threats to public safety.

This year’s grants of $18.5 million were divided among 35 recipients, communities with populations of less than 50,000 and counties with populations of less than 200,000. The City of Calloway received $600,000 to build a wastewater treatment facility; Lake County, $515,000 to buy and demolish flood-damaged homes; Brainerd, $875,000 to turn an old school into rental housing and commercial space. The program is funded by federal block grants.

 

››› Among all of the programs run by DEED, neither the Contamination Cleanup Grant Program nor the Small Cities Development Program is my favorite. (That would be either the Urban Initiatives Fund, which provides small loans to unbankable businesses in minority neighborhoods, with an 82 percent payback rate, or the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership, which funds and arranges job training specific to the immediate needs of individual companies and their employees.)

The Contamination Cleanup and Small Cities programs have worked so well, however—have made such a marked difference in the economic vitality of so many areas of the state—that not even the most ardent critics of DEED, any governor, big government, state involvement in business development, or so-called “corporate welfare” have made them targets of wrath.

If any candidates do, vote against them.

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