St. Paul Mayor Coleman: ‘No shortcuts to economic prosperity’

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“Shaken.” That’s one word Mayor Chris Coleman used to describe St. Paul during his State of the City address Monday. He said “a near-collapse of financial markets” has already forced him to make “significant cuts” to city services.

Coleman also had words of encouragement, but he cautioned that “there are no shortcuts to economic prosperity” — and said those who claim otherwise are either “lying to you … [or] fooling themselves.”

Still, he reminded citizens that St. Paul’s CIty Hall was built during the Great Depression and promised that even in “excruciating times,” the city would “refuse to be ordinary.”

Signs of hope Coleman cited ranged from the quaint to the depressing: downtown flower baskets, “dozens” of people who shovel their neighbors’ walks, and a tally of vacant houses that held steady — at 2,000 — from June 2008 to March 2009 (”arguably the housing market’s most challenging period”).

Coleman stressed that transportation infrastructure investment would be the big-ticket item that could pull the city through.

Coleman characterized the Central Corridor light-rail transit line as “crucial to future of city.” Without tooting his own horn for brokering a dispute over train noise between the Metropolitan Council and Minnesota Public Radio, he said, “One by one, obstructions to the Central Corridor have been removed.”

And Coleman called a proposed high-speed rail link from Chicago to St. Paul’s Union Depot “an opportunity we will seize and we will make a reality.”

Although the mayor was a late supporter of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, Coleman said the city is lucky to have the former Illinois senator in the White House. “We are fortunate to have a president who understands the importance of cities.”

The setting for the annual address — at one of St. Joseph’s Hospital’s ongoing expansion projects — was meant to show off the health sector as a backbone of the local economy. And he called education a “cornerstone” for St. Paul since its founding to the present day.

“Not only will our children be ready to work,” Coleman said, “… they’ll be ready to work in a global economy.” He bragged that St. Paul’s public school students speak 70 languages — a talent, he said, that employers increasingly value.

The health sector, education and the global economy were also themes for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak in his State of the City address last month. By comparison, Coleman’s speech was shorter, generally lacked lofty policy rhetoric and was less a laundry list than Rybak’s speech. (True to its bigger-twin stereotype, Minneapolis claims that about a dozen more foreign languages are spoken in its public schools.)

Both mayors are running for re-election this year, but both have also shown interest in running for governor in 2010, using other occasions to show off their grasp of statewide concerns. But such ambitions weren’t evident at either speech.

Also not highlighted was the St. Paul’s hosting of last year’s Republican National Convention — a point of pride and shame for St. Paulites. City and Ramsey County officials have had to drop most charges that arose from mass arrests and pre-emptive raids, which dominated local news coverage.

“Safe we are but not naive,” was one standout line from a poem composed for the event that St. Paul Poet Laureate Carol Connolly recited before Coleman’s address.

Coleman had a new initiative to unveil that aims to promote greater involvement of residents in their community. The Volunteer-Inspire-Prosper Web page offers a comprehensive list of volunteer opportunities. Among them, the St. Paul Police Reserve, a group of reserve officers typically have duties like traffic control and barricade erection.

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