More Than Ideas Needed to Revive Downtown Mpls Retail
A view of the Dayton’s Project on Nicollet Mall. David Bowman

More Than Ideas Needed to Revive Downtown Mpls Retail

A new work group is studying the future of retail, but true progress will require strategies, resources, and calling in all possible lifelines.

In his speech this week announcing the “Vibrant Downtown Storefronts Work Group,” Mayor Jacob Frey took a jab at nostalgia, saying “we’re not going to cling white-knuckle to what once was. The cities that are truly going to succeed are going to embrace change.”

Yes, totally, couldn’t agree more. Of course, the only event in recent memory to draw a crowd anywhere on Nicollet Mall other than Orchestra Hall was the Black Friday re-release of Santa Bear at the Dayton’s Project. But that’s history—the bear sold out.

I get what the mayor is saying: there’s no use lamenting our long history of bad breakups with luxury retailers. Still, it is important to learn from past mistakes, and by that I don’t just mean rehashing why we couldn’t satisfy a Nordstrom Rack or a Neiman Marcus (true, Gen Zers—see if you can look that one up on the public library microfiche. Downtown branch, preferably).

What I mean is, this is not downtown’s first retail work group. The Minneapolis Downtown Council has studied and brainstormed and tried to come up with fresh ideas for years. Heck, one of the many downtown boosters I heard from today recalled a committee decades ago that initiated parking incentives to bolster downtown traffic.

What concerns me is that the new committee is once again is stacked with many of the same downtown stakeholders who’ve been stymied by the lack of momentum for years.

Times have changed, work habits and shopping habits have changed, and no doubt, a new effort to revitalize downtown is sorely needed. What concerns me is that the new committee is once again is stacked with many of the same downtown stakeholders who’ve been stymied by the lack of momentum for years. Commercial real estate brokers, public officials—all well intended and very knowledgeable. But to the mayor’s point about embracing change, how is this time any different? The group, which has no budget attached to its mission, is tasked with spending the next few months ideating on recommendations to be presented in April. In that amount of time, I’m willing to bet a nimble startup founder could not only come up with a fresh concept, but create the branding, assemble a team, secure funding, and stand up a demo in any one of the recently vacated discount stores along Nicollet Mall. Where are the entrepreneurs on this committee? Did anyone call one of our business schools to challenge an entrepreneurship class—the classes that produce startups like Nanodropper, Love Your Melon, and The Social Lights—with identifying new downtown traffic drivers; particularly with a new generation of consumers in mind?

Calling all Minnesota-based brands

I’m glad to see the retail work group includes Dana Swindler from MartinPatrick 3, pride and joy of Twin Cities shopping and heartbeat of the North Loop, where retail thrives. But this city is also home to many successful national lifestyle brands whose leaders might, out of love and concern for their hometown, be willing to take action that could begin to start a new movement. Perhaps Blu Dot would stand up a demo space to showcase up and coming furniture makers. Did the mayor’s office call its CEO, John Christakos? Maybe Evereve, which recently expanded its assortment of outerwear, could stage a winter fashion show on Nicollet Mall followed by a popup shopping experience in the IDS Crystal Court with a discount good only downtown on that day. Did anyone ask co-founders Megan and Mike Tamte? Short term shots of inspiration, but we’ve got to start somewhere.

If you want to talk about leaders who know how to get things done against odds, call Dayna Frank. Maybe First Avenue could spearhead a listening room on Nicollet—not unlike the ones you see in Nashville or New York—where local or visiting musicians, new and established, could try out new work.

We pride ourselves on this city’s top-notch advertising talent, and yet I saw no one from Colle McVoy, Carmichael Lynch, Fallon, The Stable, Zeus Jones, or so many other agencies with downtown addresses in the mayor’s retail photo opp this week. If you want to talk about what’s next, why not use those creative gurus as your guide? They could have started by giving the Vibrant Downtown Storefronts Work Group a name that actually evokes “vibrancy.”

We all want the same thing: a safe, thriving downtown filled with diverse, inviting experiences for those who work and live there, that are also compelling and unique enough to attract those who don’t. I’m sure many fantastic ideas will come from the new work group. Heck, I’ve seen a dozen or more great ideas for downtown Minneapolis on social media this week alone. Former Star Tribune staff writer Rick Nelson suggested turning the former Nordstrom Rack space into the city’s showiest brewery or distillery. We certainly have enough local beverage entrepreneurs to work on that project, and they all know how to draw a crowd.

Attracting new nationals

It’s going to take a few big-name, new-to-market brands with deep pockets to jump start a new chapter in downtown retail. I, and others, have thrown out magnets like affordably priced Japanese fashion brand Uniqlo and Italian marketplace and dining emporium Eataly—not an easy sell, as our commercial real estate brokers know from years of disappointments, but could the city help put together a package they can’t refuse, or go beyond dollars to sell them on being part of the revitalization?

Knowing the growing popularity of vintage shopping, particularly among eco-conscious young shoppers, I’d love to see the former Marshalls or the first floor of Dayton’s Project become a giant resale shopping co-op, pooling the talents and closets of established local vendors. And look at the excitement around the new Asia Mall in Eden Prairie. Could the city incentivize Caspian Group to create a second location downtown? Maybe Target could underwrite that effort. And while they’re at it, consider opening their beautiful Target Plaza Commons on Nicollet for nonprofit events or coworking.

We need more than ideas. We need a work group empowered to act—be that, permission to stage the World’s Longest Pickleball Tournament down Nicollet (are you game, Life Time?), or sponsors to fund an ice rink or a winter concert series on the mall. We shouldn’t wait for the next Super Bowl or Final Four to plan our own homecoming party.

Let’s approach the long-term health of downtown retail much like we do a MN Cup startup competition, bringing together veterans and rising innovators. Let’s pool all of our expertise, resources and powers of persuasion to make big, exciting things happen. We are a state that knows how to build Fortune 500 companies, invent pacemakers, Post-It notes, and plant-based proteins. We birthed the suburban mall. We are home to world renowned museums and James Beard award winning chefs. We put on an epic Super Bowl in the coldest conditions ever and draw masses onto frozen lakes to observe art shanties. We can do this if we give it our all.