St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has a lot on his plate right now. Republicans are pushing for state budget cuts in local government aid to cities, which could drastically affect St. Paul. The debate in the legislature rages as communities on the ground continue to deal with the recession, which hit some St. Paul neighborhoods hard. Coleman is gearing up for a fight to keep the city’s sources of revenue. As he put it, “The intensity of our efforts and the work that we have to do is certainly as large as the pile of snow on the Sears parking lot.” With all that work to do, the mayor found time to talk to the Daily Planet about how to best promote livability and economic vitality in St. Paul neighborhoods.
What is your neighborhood and what’s the best part about it?
I live on the West Side of the city and I love a lot of aspects of it, the multiculturalism of it, the bluffs, the views of the river and the convenience to downtown.
How has the economy affected St. Paul neighborhoods?
Well, the most obvious example is the mortgage foreclosure crisis that has tremendous impact on some of our neighborhood initiatives. When I first took office in 2006 we had an initiative, the Invest St. Paul strategy, that was really trying strengthen previous investments and set up our neighborhoods for the long term. But the mortgage foreclosure crisis really left us a big hole that we have to dig out of.
Is that the biggest challenge facing neighborhoods right now?
Well, I always start with education, because education has to be the cornerstone of any key strategy. If you’re going to talk about an economic development strategy, a public safety strategy, a housing strategy it begins with making sure that our children start off school ready to learn. If I can get somebody a job with a two or four year degree the chances that they’re going to need affordable housing are very significantly reduced. If they’re involved in an out-of-school-time program, it’s a lot less likely that they’ll be engaged in criminal activity. So neighborhood challenges start with education for me.
And the new strategic plan will address this in your view?
What I like about the new strategic plan is that it aligns well with what we’re doing already. It’s a basis for change and it’s a basis for accountability.
Like many recessions, this one has had a disproportionate affect on some communities, including minorities and the less educated. How do you see this play out on a neighborhood level in St. Paul? How is the city addressing this issue?
We’ve got to make sure that we have strategies in place to help low-income people. Take libraries, for example. The 21st century library is a very different place than the library where you just went to get a book to read. They’re now workforce centers. A person who doesn’t have a job can go into Rondo Library and look up jobs on a database and get assistance with that.
But will there be cuts to library hours too, depending on the budget?
The budget we’ve adopted for 2011 does not reduce library hours and services. It depends on what the state legislature and the governor do to us. If the governor has his proposal then we’ll be able to build on the status quo and have some certainty going into the future. If the current proposal that was suggested by the Republicans in the State House taking away state funding to St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Duluth; the three largest economic engines in the state—it would have devastating consequences to us and would require us to make very significant reductions in those core services.
Are you bracing yourself for cuts in LGA (Local Government Aid) and other sources of revenue?
Well, first we fight. And we do everything that we can to support the Governor’s proposal, and we do everything we can to let the Republicans in the legislature—the ones that have proposed these Draconian cuts—to help them understand why those cuts aren’t in the best interest of some one who claims to be in support of business development. You can’t take away that level of resources from a city like St. Paul or Minneapolis and expect that these economic engines that provide fuel for the entire state of Minnesota to be able to thrive. It just doesn’t work that way.
Have you seen any innovative responses to economic uncertainty at the neighborhood level?
A lot of the work that’s being done around neighborhood reclamation and foreclosure management is being done on a neighborhood level. For instance, the East Side Neighborhood Development Company, among other organizations is doing really innovative work. I could go to almost every neighborhood in St. Paul and they’re all adopting different strategies. Clearly the Promise Neighborhood in St. Paul is one approach, and look at the work that’s being done around the Central Corridor to see how we can protect small businesses through the light rail transition. Even in the Highland Park neighborhood, a neighborhood that’s doing well, there’s the closure of the Ford plant. In Highland, there’s a community-based process that has tried to envision the next phase for that land. We understand that these kinds of approaches work because they not only have community buy-in, but actual community direction.
Do you ever get overwhelmed?
[Laughs. Pauses. Laughs.] Uh, well there’s a lot of work to do. But I have great community support, a great staff, support from great council members like Council Members Carter, Stark, and Bostrom. I mean all these folks that really get this. So I get to be head of the orchestra but there’s all kinds of people who are fiddling really, really fast.