It wasn’t quite a peasant’s revolt, but the Ford Task Force did sound off a little Monday night about what many of us have perceived as the slow pace of the proceedings. Over the course of the first two meetings – some four hours of seat-time in all – we had spent a grand total of about 20 minutes brainstorming about the site. With the schedule calling for us to present several alternative development scenarios by May 7 – a scant four meetings from now – there has been growing concern about whether we could manage to accomplish such a task in the time left and if, in the end, the scenarios might not be more a choice of options presented to us for our sign-off than ideas we genuinely come up with on our own.
Fortunately, we did spend a good amount of time brainstorming the other night about preliminary goals under a half-dozen headings: open space, access, sustainability, policy, and more. There was also insistence that immediate neighbors of the plant be included in the planned one-on-one stakeholder meetings the consultants on the project are going to be holding over the next few weeks.
Unfortunately there is still considerable uncertainty about how deeply Ford is vested in the outcome of this planning process. Things got off to a rocky start Monday evening with the announcement that the company was, without further amplification, taking the 15 acres of the site on which the hyrdo plant sits “off the table,” and we were not to include it in our brainstorming – at least for now. I will be interested to see what explanation, if any, is forthcoming about this move, or if other parcels of the site will be similarly decommissioned. In general, the consensus on the task force seems to be that the planning process – in which the city is investing several hundred thousand dollars – represents a real value-added for Ford, in all probability boosting the final value of the land. In return, at least this task force member would like stronger assurances that the corporation is on board.
Meanwhile, another missing item in discussions so far is the question of whether the site will contain any kind of green manufacturing facility. Certainly there is a constituency in St. Paul in favor of such an idea – and not just among UAW members, but among people who feel the site offers the city an opportunity to become a leader in, say, wind turbine manufacturing, and thus also become a Mecca for investment, new jobs, and economic opportunity for Highland Village and the city as a whole. Given the recent passage of the state’s renewable energy requirements – which mandate that by 2025, at least 25 percent of Minnesota’s electrical use must come from new sources of renewable energy – the idea that St. Paul could become a magnet for money and jobs from such an endeavor is hardly a far-fetched idea.
And, lest we forget, there is already on the site a 40,000 square foot training center built only a few years ago with state bonds and equipped with state-of-the-art instructional gear by the UAW. One possibility might be to turn the facility into the centerpiece of a community resource available for use by site tenants, the Minnesota System of Colleges and Universities, the St. Paul schools, and other local colleges and universities. At the very least, it would seem a shame to tear down such a potentially valuable asset – one that still has decades of potential.
Rich Broderick is vice president of the Macalester-Groveland Community Council, a co-founder of the Daily Planet, and Ford Plant task force member. His opinions do not reflect the official views of the task force or the MGCC.