Downtown St. Paul’s soon to be vacated Downtown Public Safety Annex is currently a hot topic of discussion.
The 1925 era building which has served for years as public safety training facility will be vacant as the St. Paul Police Department moves to new and more modern facilities at the end of the year.
Mayor Chris Coleman, citing expanded housing and entertainment options in downtown St. Paul, has wisely called for proposals for building use to not focus on additional housing options.
Furthermore, the City’s Department of Planning and Economic Development has made it clear that any proposals that call for demolishing “…the building or to repurpose it for housing will not be considered.”
If ever there was an opportunity that called out for creativity and innovation the Public Safety Annex is it.
What is clear is that a cookie cutter approach to this building simply will not work.
The growing demise of malls as retail continues to founder in a world of Amazon and a multitude of other online distributors of anything and everything that anyone could want or need should be a deterrent to tempting and easy solutions.
Furthermore, development that aims to cater simply to those currently living and working in downtown would not be wise, either.
While it is true there are more people living downtown and more entertainment and dining options than ever before it is also true that serious questions remain about its long-term sustainability.
The departure of major employers, such as Cray, may well be a trend. Or it could be an aberration.
That being said, the fact is current major employers in downtown are not rock-solid tenants, either.
Ecolab, Securian and Travellers are all companies that could easily choose to consolidate operations elsewhere.
The fact is Ecolab is already reducing its physical footprint in the downtown core.
In an era of mobility and networking the need to retain bricks and mortar structures in any single City is no longer a fait accompli for major American cities.
As major employers depart a downtown they leave a gaping hole. And, that hole isn’t just an empty building.
They take with them confidence of others who may be willing to make an investment in the City. They take with them employees who dined at restaurants, shopped at stores and attended baseball and hockey games.
There is a ripple effect that must be taken into account that can have profound ramifications for the City of St. Paul.
Knowing this, there is a unique opportunity for the City of St. Paul to do more than just fill and old building with a bunch of shops or businesses in the hopes of adding more jobs to its downtown count.
As St. Paul’s community becomes even more diverse City leaders and development officials should consider an investment in a project that will do more than create jobs in the short-term.
They should consider a project that will create long-term opportunity and wealth and capital accumulation for minority men and women who are seeking to build their future in this community.
Minneapolis Midtown Global Market offers a glimpse of what could be in the Downtown Public Safety Annex.
According to its website “Midtown Global Market is an internationally-themed public market with great food, unique gifts, GROCERIES AND LIVE MUSIC.”
It is this type of venue that should serve as a template for the City of St. Paul.
But more than just assembling together a variety of businesses and shops to sell food, gifts and provide entertainment, the City should leverage this moment as a way to establish a new formula for economic development that could be a model for other urban centers.
Imagine that instead of subsidizing a building we subsidized opportunity for minority men and women who hope to use the powers of the marketplace to create wealth and capital for their families, while providing those who will work for and with them to do so for their own families.
The City should consider seeking out private investment capital willing to finance the business ventures of minority business men and women who will locate in the Downtown Public Safety Annex.
That capital will help develop business plans, training for employees and owners, marketing and promotion strategies unique to each business.
More than that, however, that private capital will also serve as a source of credit for those small business owners to give them enough latitude to start their business and endure the difficult nature of a small business start-ups.
Getting a business up and running is tough work.
Keeping it going is even tougher.
It takes time and small businesses operating in the Downtown Public Safety Annex should be given a long enough runway to give them every legitimate opportunity of success.
The City’s contribution, besides handing over a building and space for free, should be to work with existing downtown businesses, big and small, to create mentoring opportunities but also, when and where appropriate, services and resources that can help minority business owners and entrepreneurs their best chance of success.
Other overhead costs for businesses – legal fees, utilities, uniforms and countless other things should be examined for where and when they can be provided pro bono by others, or at dramatically reduced rates.
The ultimate goal should not just be to fill the Downtown Public Safety Annex with jobs. It should be to fill it with long-term economic opportunity for the diverse community that will soon be the majority population in St. Paul.
It should be a center where wealth can be created. Where capital can be accumulated. And where those who are so often an afterthought in the world of economic development are put at the center of it.
It shouldn’t just be about jobs. Or just about helping a minority man or woman succeed in building a business.
It should be about making their success the platform for the next generation of entrepreneurs for our community.
A place where minority business men and women don’t have to just work hard to get ahead. But where working hard offers them a legitimate shot at capital accumulation and wealth that might otherwise be far beyond their grasp.
Those men and women should have the opportunity – not the guarantee – to succeed in a way that offers them the potential for achieving the American Dream in all its forms.