St. Paul Leaders Should Enable Residents to Help Revitalize Downtown
The death of downtown St. Paul has been predicted so many times that I’ve lost count.
The latest scenario is that it will never bounce back from the pandemic because downtown workers are shifting to hybrid schedules—and only will show up at their offices two or three times a week.
As someone who started working downtown in 1989, I’ve heard plenty of naysayers who cursed the loss of retail and other economic changes downtown. Of course, downtowns don’t normally “die;” they evolve, sometimes for the better and sometimes otherwise.
This time around, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and many of America’s strongest downtowns have a new asset that civic and business leaders ought to find a way to engage and exploit. That’s an army of retired or semi-retired “post-professionals” who’re able and eager to contribute to their new downtown “neighborhoods.”
Happily, this opportunity is supported by the goal of the Saint Paul Downtown Alliance to further expand the residential population from 10,000 to 30,000 residents.
My spouse, Lori, and I decided to move from the suburbs and buy a home in downtown St. Paul in 2013, and we’ve never looked back.
From outdoor concerts in Mears Park to baseball games at CHS Field, we love walking to events just a few blocks from our home. We also have tried to be good citizens and neighbors—from volunteering to beautify the city to asking hard questions to devise solutions for combating crime downtown.
So often, we look to government and business to solve societal ills, address basic problems, and improve community services. The pandemic gave me time to think about how downtown residents can play a much bigger role in enhancing the life of our downtown community. In particular, they could do more if city officials helped them navigate the bureaucracy and reduced or removed barriers to doing projects.
Among the 10,000 or so people who live in downtown St. Paul, my wife and I have encountered many retired or semi-retired professionals like ourselves who have skills that can be deployed on significant community initiatives.
After Covid-19 forced the shutdown of corporate blood drives at Ecolab and Securian, and the Red Cross began reporting blood shortages across the Twin Cities, a very small group of downtown “post-professionals” worked to create a monthly Skyway Blood Drive series. This month we will complete our second year—24 monthly blood drives generating 1,100 units of blood.
Similarly, Mears Park, located at the heart of the Lowertown neighborhood, would never have achieved its beloved park status without the tireless work of the Friends of Mears Park cadre of post-professional managers and gardeners. They pick up where basic city services leave off.
The key here is to differentiate between our old definition of “volunteers,” people who generously contribute their time to accomplish specific tasks, and a new category of “post-professionals,” those who are willing and excited to launch and take responsibility for broader, more sophisticated initiatives.
Here are some of the positive efforts we’ve already seen unfold in downtown St. Paul:
- A retired physician, former Red Cross manager and bone marrow registry regulatory specialist collaborated to help us lead 24 monthly Skyway Blood Drives with the Red Cross.
- A former product sourcing manager leads a team that’s adding improvements to Mears Park.
- A former college president helped to raise funding for a Lowertown Justice and Democracy Center.
- A retired Securian vice president and a downtown retail development executive are working together to identify businesses and cultural activities that could breathe new life into downtown.
In addition, a small group of former business development professionals are working semi-independently to attract new businesses to downtown. The city’s urban core is also home to retired nonprofit and philanthropic leaders who have rich histories of raising millions of dollars for worthwhile community enhancements.
So what might civic and business leaders do to tap into this potential force multiplier?
- BOLO: Be on the look out for residents receptive to helping improve their downtown neighborhoods. I’ve connected with some of them after reading their thoughtful newspaper or social media contributions.
- Support: The work of these independent contributors might benefit from light office support—from printing to website design. Be open to offering this kind of support as appropriate.
- Coordinate, Don’t Dictate: These are folks who are finished with command-and-control work environments, so don’t approach them like employees. Just ask them what you can do to help.
- Celebrate: Recognize and catalyze these valuable post-professionals to do even more by publicly celebrating their work and accomplishments on behalf of downtown. If there are tickets available for downtown events, offer some to them. They will show up for the events and appreciate the kindness.
For civic and business leaders, there’s an easy first step you can take. Find one or two post-professionals who already are contributing to downtown in a constructive way. Take them to coffee. Then ask them to encourage other post-professionals to get involved and to coordinate with people who want to make a difference.
Downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis are going to survive and even thrive in this new “mixed-use” era. Residential “neighbors” will pose some challenges. But they also will provide many opportunities for collaboration and growth—if downtown business and civic leaders are flexible enough to engage with them.
Bill Hanley is a former executive vice president of Twin Cities Public Television. He serves on St. Paul’s Skyway Governance Advisory Committee.