Building community downtown


After endless hours of planning and preparation, the eyes of the world will be upon the downtown neighborhood of Saint Paul when the Republican National Convention (RNC) comes to town, September 1-4. The RNC’s arrival focuses attention on the district council that serves downtown, the District 17 CapitolRiver Planning Council (CRC ).

John Schachterle is the new executive director of the CapitolRiver Planning Council. On board since the middle of June, Schacherterle, took on the new role after working as a volunteer for the council for several months. While he realizes that the downtown community presents some challenges, “in the end it presents opportunities,” he says.

Eyes of the world will be upon their neighborhood
District 17 CapitolRiver Planning Council

By Mary Thoemke
District 17 CapitolRiver Planning Council

322 Minnesota Street Suite W-122

Saint Paul


District 17 CapitolRiver Planning Council (CRC )is located in the downtown neighborhood of Saint Paul. Its boundaries extend from the State Capitol building to the Mississippi River to Interstates 94 and 35E, and Highway 52 to the Xcel Energy Center.

CapitolRiver Council is in a unique position as a district council. Downtown is often not recognized as a neighborhood, yet it is one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in the city. Funding from the city is based on a formula determined by the number of residents, meaning that the CRC operates with fewer resources than it needs to carry out the work that needs to be done. Total budget for the year is $75,000, with $57,000 of that is from the city of Saint Paul. Other funds come from fund raising.

CapitolRiver Council is the one group that represents everyone downtown – including the estimated 8,000 residents and 68,000 people who work downtown. Residents include owners, renters, and people who are homeless. Businesses include retail and restaurants, theaters and museums, government employees and hospital workers.

The Board of Directors number 35 people who are elected at the annual meeting. That number includes at least 10 residents, and 10 organizational appointments, such as the Chamber of Commerce, MPR, TPT, Convention and visitors bureau, and Business Owners and Managers Association (BOMA).

Rice Park sits in the midst of architectural treasures: Saint Paul Public Library, Landmark Center, the Ordway, and the Saint Paul Hotel. Mears Park offers flowers and stream and baroque music.

For example, many apartment and condo buildings have party rooms. Monthly First Friday gatherings rotate around from place to place to give residents and business people a chance to meet one another. Schachterle draws people to the gatherings by posting a flyer reading “Free Gift Bag.” He figures that within an hour he can have “face to face contact with between 40 and 100 people.” Following the meetings, names of the residents are put into an e-mail data base. He meets with businesses in the same way. He says he can now include 500 names on the list for the community e-mails that he sends.

A resident of Saint Paul for two years, Schachterle formerly headed an insurance trade organization, and practiced law for 22 years in Des Moines, Iowa. Tired of the burn-out from long hours, Schachterler says he simply “walked away from the job [as lawyer].”

“I have a huge passion for downtown, and have lived downtown all my life,” Schachterler says.Since he walks to work and walks to meetings, Schacherterle is in a good position to observe what is coming in and what is leaving downtown.

Who lives downtown?

Downtown residents range from top-level executives in high-priced condos to homeless residents and those who live in places such as Mary Hall, a Catholic Charities-run housing program. Recently, the Commerce Building was completely renovated with 100 units of housing geared to families earning $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

Kim Hyers, the president of the District 17 CapitolRiver Planning Council, is an architect who lives and works downtown. After living in Denmark township (near Afton) for a few years, Hyers and her husband bought a condo in downtown Saint Paul five years ago. She says that they consider themselves “urbanites” and it has been exciting for them and for their two children to be back in the city.

Downtowners include elderly residents, who have lived in tiny apartments for years. Young people, some of them students, live in low-rent studio apartments, enjoying teh convenience of Metro Transit bus lines. Some of the younger residents say there is no real place for them to go because everything closes down at night, and because most of the restaurants are too expensive for their budget.

Convention Details

The CapitolRiver Council has been at the table for discussions and planning for the RNC.

“I think having a big event in town is fantastic for many reasons. It draws the spotlight to our great little historic downtown.” Hyers says of the convention. “It gives everyone a chance to put on a great coat of paint, and we’re seeing agencies work together like never before to accomplish the best possible hosted environment.”

Both Schachterle and Hyers have been involved with the retail initiative to fill empty spaces during the RNC. Hyers says, “ It’s been fun to see some of the smaller start-up businesses courted for our skyway and street level spaces.” As a downtown resident, she says she hopes some of the businesses will stay around after the convention ends.

Schacherterle says that the CRC is “serving as a conduit for getting information to the community.” This includes partnering with the police to contact displaced contract parkers, each of whom was contacted individually to make alternate arrangements.

Central Corridor

Like the other communities along the route of the proposed Central Corridor light rail line, the CRC continues to attempt to work out details that affect their neighborhood. These range from petitioning for a Union Depot station to Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) concerns about noise noise, and Saint Louis the Great Catholic Church and Central Presbyterian Church concerns about access for handicapped church goers and parking.

Ongoing Challenges

Both Hyers and Schachterle say that the biggest ongoing challenge is the fact that the budget allows for only one staff person.. Schachterle says, “The bad part is that instead of doing outreach, ” he has to keep up with all of the administrative office work.

“We have incredible volunteers who have put over 1,500 hours into CRC in the past year,” Hyers says. “We could not have the kind of committee contributions and overall presence … without our great board members and volunteer friends.”

Hyers notes that more miles of LRT track are planned for District 17 than for any other district council area, and that downtown has the potential to be a multi-modal hub for local and national transit. She says, “ We are not able to provide or fund research for any of these initiatives with our current staffing model.”

Mary Thoemke, Mary Thoemke, a lifelong resident of Saint Paul, is a free lance writer for the Twin Cities Daily Planet.