Bikes boom in Minneapolis, but remain a political target

Alyssa Kohn is Minneapolis’ newest bicycle entrepreneur.Kohn’s company, Minneapolis By Bike, offers guided bike tours of the city, including a farmer’s market route and a history themed ride. Her inaugural tours were scheduled over the weekend.Safe, pleasant-to-ride routes are essential to Kohn’s business, so when she learned that the city’s plans to hire a full-time bicycling coordinator had come under fire last month, Kohn wrote to her city council member to defend the job posting.“I said I’m an entrepreneur,” says Kohn, “and having a coordinator to make bicycling safer is only going to make businesses like [mine] stronger.”The controversy stemmed from the city’s decision to advertise the bicycle coordinator job as it was simultaneously debating layoffs for up to 10 firefighters, and was fueled by a critical news article and editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.The bicycle position, which was created by shifting funding from other vacancies, was on the chopping block at the City Council’s Sept. 2 meeting, but the council ultimately voted 11-2 in favor of preserving it. The coordinator will oversee planning and public safety issues related to bicycles and pedestrians.A transportation policy expert for Fresh Energy, which also publishes Midwest Energy News, was involved in the planning process for the position.While the position was spared, the dust-up was a reminder to the city’s fast-growing bicycle community that it still has a ways to go in educating the public about bicycling’s economic significance. In Minneapolis, about 4 percent of workers commute by bicycle, second only to cycling mecca Portland, Oregon, among major cities.‘An investment, not an expense’Across the country, cities like Portland are hiring bicycle and pedestrian coordinators to help attract not only federal project dollars but also to make their cities a more attractive place for workers who want the option of living without a car, says Joan Pasiuk, director of Bike Walk Twin Cities, which promotes non-motorized transportation.Chicago has had a bicycle coordinator for a decade and a half. Continue Reading

States find new ways to encourage efficiency

Imagine pulling into a gas station and being offered a complimentary tune-up to improve your car’s fuel efficiency. You’d probably wonder: what’s the catch?So how about when your electric utility gives you a free compact fluorescent light bulb? Or your gas company offers to help pay for new windows or a more efficient furnace?Gas and electric utilities have unique relationships with their customers in that they actually spend money on programs to reduce demand for the products they sell.Why is this? Most states require utilities to invest in conservation programs as part of the regulation they accept for being able to operate as regional monopolies. In other words, they’re doing it because they have to.A growing list of states, however, are experimenting with a new approach. Continue Reading

Are renewable standards driving up utility rates?

When Minnesota passed one of the nation’s most aggressive renewable portfolio standards in 2007, Minnkota Power wasted no time in ramping up its wind capacity. Believing the cost of wind power would go up, the Grand Forks, N.D., generation and transmission co-op locked in long-term contracts to cover its needs for the next 25 years. Then the economy went south, dragging electricity demand and wholesale prices down with it. Minnkota, along with the 11 rural electric distributors it serves in North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, suddenly found itself stuck with more wind power than it needed. It’s been selling the excess at a loss ever since, making up the difference with a half-cent per kilowatt-hour surcharge on its customers. Continue Reading

Ten years and $41 million later, Minnesota “clean coal” plant is still vapor

When a former high school hockey star proposed to develop a $2 billion “clean coal” power plant outside this northeastern Minnesota city, the news couldn’t have come at a better time.The region had just lost 1,400 jobs from a major taconite plant shutdown, the worst economic news to hit the Iron Range in two decades. The prospect of replacing those jobs was celebrated by citizens, politicians and newspaper editorials with the enthusiasm of a March tournament bid.For another story with a distinctly different perspective, see New plan unveiled for Iron Range power plant Nearly a decade later, after having spent nearly $41 million in taxpayer money, the Mesaba Energy Project still has yet to secure key environmental permits; it hasn’t found a buyer for the electricity it wants to produce, and without a power-purchase agreement, it can’t find investors to fund construction. The project’s backers are now changing their approach, seeking approval from the state’s legislature to shelve the “clean coal” component – temporarily, they say – and move forward instead with a conventional natural gas power plant. That has opponents changing their cries from “boondoggle” to “bait-and-switch” and some speculating whether the apparent change in strategy might be a Hail Mary attempt to salvage something from the long controversial energy project. Or, in keeping with hockey analogies: “They are pulling their goalie, because they need to score a goal now,” said Aaron Brown, an author and newspaper columnist who has followed the project since 2001, first as a reporter and then as editor of the Hibbing Daily Tribune (he’s also chronicled the project on his blog, Minnesota Brown). Continue Reading

Architect hopes to give new life to funeral home property

A vacant mortuary that’s been on the brink of foreclosure for more than a year is now getting a new life as an office and community space.Architect John Harriss owns the property at 3207 Central Ave. NE. His firm was originally hired to design a condo project at the site.When sales got off to a slow start, Harriss and a business partner bought the property from the initial developers in 2006 with hopes of improving sales. The condos ultimately failed, and the property has been in financial limbo since 2007. A green, thrifty renovation is now underway to convert the funeral home into a multi-tenant office building, with Harriss’ own architecture firm serving as the anchor tenant. “We saw an opportunity to take a building that was destined for the landfill and reuse it,” Harriss said.Harriss Architecture, which specializes in schools, senior housing and sustainable design, hopes to transform the Central Ave. site into a showcase for green building design.The vision also calls for transforming the former casket showroom into a community meeting space for neighborhood and nonprofit groups.The renovation is a work in progress, and Harriss said it will continue to be piecemeal project, with work being done as time and money is available. Green building features already incorporated include energy-saving windows, non-toxic paints and insulation made from recycled blue jeans. Continue Reading

Ward 1: AFSCME awards first major labor endorsement

A union representing government workers has awarded the first major labor endorsement of the Ward 1 City Council race. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 5 will be supporting neighborhood leader Doron Clark, according to an announcement this week from the campaign. Clark is running to succeed Council Member Paul Ostrow, who is not seeking re-election. His opponents include neighborhood activist Kevin Reich and City Council aide Jose Velez. All three candidates live in the Windom Park neighborhood, which is situated southeast of Lowry and Central avenues. Continue Reading

Deegan drops out of Ward 1 City Council race

A longtime public servant says he is withdrawing from the Ward 1 City Council race in order to finish business as a city employee. Thomas Deegan, manager of the city’s Problem Properties Unit, said he learned late last month that federal law prohibits political activity by officials who oversee federal grant dollars. Deegan’s department is slated to manage a $5.6 million grant from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development initiative that helps local governments acquire and redevelop foreclosed properties. The funding is expected to arrive next week. “I feel I have a moral obligation to the city to make sure this program is successful,” Deegan said today in an interview with the Northeast Beat. Continue Reading

Wielinski: Parks won’t be top priority under city

City Council Member Paul Ostrow has set off a fierce civic debate this week with the unveiling of a set of ballot initiatives that seek to radically reorganize city government. Among the proposals Ostrow wants Minneapolis voters to consider: whether to eliminate the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board and roll its duties into a city department. This evening I spoke with one of the Park Board’s most persistent critics, Liz Wielinski, who is also a candidate for Park Board this year, running to succeed Walt Dziedzic. And here’s a headline: Wielinski agrees with the Park Board on this one, at least with the public comments made so far by board members, who unsurprisingly oppose the idea. “In a city like Minneapolis, where the parks are such an important part of the city, it’s important to have an independent board,” Wielinski said. Continue Reading

Jordan resident to manage post-NRP transition

When North and Northeast Minneapolis home owners embark on home improvement projects, they can often apply for financial help from their neighborhood organization. The Waite Park Community Council in Northeast, for example, started a program this month, providing $50 rebates for certain home safety improvements. It’s backed up with $10,000 in funding from the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, an initiative that’s supported neighborhood-level programs for nearly two decades. With only about 2,400 houses in the neighborhood, the community council expects the fund will last for years. So what happens when the Neighborhood Revitalization Program ceases to exist at the end of this calendar year? Continue Reading