St. Paul’s Mississippi Riverfront: An historic opportunity for minority economic development and job creation


Designating the St. Paul Riverfront as a St. Paul Minority Enterprise and Economic Development Zone (SPMEEDZ).

In 1994 newly elected Mayor, Norm Coleman, sensing that the St. Paul Mississippi riverfront held the potential for expansive economic growth and opportunity renamed the Riverfront Development Corporation the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation.

Twenty-two years later one can be forgiven for not recognizing substantial public and private economic development along St. Paul’s Mississippi riverfront.

Which should compel us to reexamine what is the real opportunity for the riverfront.

Certainly taxpayers should consider whether or not the multitude of loud public pronouncements by multiple Mayors (including Norm Coleman) over the past decades about the potential of the riverfront have found good intentions thwarted by studies, visions and promises of “place- making.”

A lengthy piece in 2013 by Joe Kimball of MinnPost heralding the adoption of the “Great River Passage” plan is just one example of a lot of hype that has seen little in the way of real advancement.

As Kimball points out in his story, In the storage rooms at City Hall, you’ll find dusty copies of previous river-related studies conducted by the city, including a river framework from 1997, a corridor plan in 2001 and the Great River Park Chapter on 2007.”

I noted with interest an article that the Riverfront Corporation has on its website:

Which, of course, is a lofty and absolutely essential goal – reducing racial inequity.

Thoughtful design – place-making – championing of urban design – these are great development words.

But, it would be too much to claim that they have substantially reduced racial inequity in St. Paul and certainly haven’t done so along the St. Paul Mississippi riverfront.

Which is why there ought to be a radical new approach to how the St. Paul riverfront is handled with regard to economic development and job creation – and how it can be harnessed to effectively address racial inequity.

I believe that the Mayor and City Council should work to establish much of the 17 miles of the St. Paul Mississippi riverfront as The St. Paul Minority Enterprise and Economic Development Zone (SPMEEDZ).

The stated goal and objective of the SPMEEDZ should be simple:  To offer tax benefits and financing and other incentives to encourage minority owned businesses and investment to create new businesses and jobs along the St. Paul Mississippi riverfront.

By designating what is arguably the most valuable piece of economic development real estate in St. Paul – perhaps in the entire State of Minnesota – as the SPMEEDZ – the City of St. Paul will have done more in one fell swoop than has been done in the past twenty-two years to address racial inequity in the city’s economic development and job creation efforts.

It sends a strong message to minority businesses and investors – not just in Minnesota – but throughout the United States – that St. Paul is opening the door to one of the most compelling economic development opportunities for minorities in the Midwest.

It provides a clear and irrefutable focus on racial inequity – one that is rooted in building up communities of color by creating an enterprise and economic development zone that’s not located in an economically depressed or hard to develop region of the city.

(As a quick aside, we need to continue to strategically invest in economically depressed and hard to develop regions of the city.  But, the failure of most enterprise and economic development zones is that they are often located in areas which have been historically difficult to find interested investors and entrepreneurs without massive and, far too often, unsustainable public subsidies.)

No such problem should exist with St. Paul’s 17 miles of Mississippi riverfront.

Imagine a riverfront teeming with a rich tapestry of diverse cultures, ethnic restaurants, shops, artisans, entertainment and more – and with the kind of mix of public and private partnership that is the key to long-term success of these ventures.

Mayor Chris Coleman has shown his propensity for big vision and willingness to take risk.

The St. Paul Saints – St. Paul United – and other initiatives succeeded because he understood that bold action was required to cut through the clutter of studies, task forces and community conversations to get the job done.

One may not agree with the projects – but one can’t disagree with the outcome of the Mayor’s impatient, focused and urgent efforts to get those projects done.

The same impatience for action must be applied to riverfront development in St. Paul.

It won’t happen with a riverfront corporation focused on championing thoughtful urban design and place-making.

There is a role for those things in an urban center.  And, if that’s the role of the Riverfront Development Corporation, then let that be its role.

But, then someone needs to be responsible for actually creating economic development and jobs along the Mississippi riverfront.

Combining an urgent sense that something can and should be done with the historic opportunity to create a SPMEEDZ – along the most valuable piece of real estate in Minnesota – is the kind of vision the Mayor is capable of harnessing – and making a reality.

That is a lasting legacy of addressing racial inequity that will be paying dividends for generations to come in the form of minority business ownership, capital investment, economic growth and job creation.

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