The New Urban Toolbox

The mayor of Minneapolis talks about the challenges facing the Twin Cities and collaborative solutions for addressing them.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, both members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, have an unusually close working relationship that reflects their two cities' collaborative approach to regional policy issues.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
June 11, 2014, 4:11 a.m.

MIN­NEAPOL­IS — Min­neapol­is and St. Paul, Minn., have driv­en the state’s eco­nomy for at least a cen­tury. With the state cap­it­ol in St. Paul, the Uni­versity of Min­nesota’s main cam­pus in Min­neapol­is, and 19 dif­fer­ent For­tune 500 com­pan­ies headquartered here, it’s not sur­pris­ing that the met­ro­pol­it­an area is home to more than half of the state’s res­id­ents and a grow­ing num­ber of jobs. The Twin Cit­ies didn’t es­cape the re­ces­sion, but the re­gion has emerged re­l­at­ively un­scathed. This past April, the un­em­ploy­ment rate in the Min­neapol­is-St. Paul-Bloom­ing­ton re­gion was just 4.1 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics.

But the Twin Cit­ies face a num­ber of chal­lenges com­mon to all metro areas. Min­neapol­is May­or Betsy Hodges and St. Paul May­or Chris Cole­man say demo­graph­ic change is one of them. By 2040, more than one in five metro-area res­id­ents will be over age 65, and 40 per­cent will be non­white, ac­cord­ing to the re­gion’s plan­ning agency. The re­gion has to fig­ure out how to nar­row the gaps in edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment, in­come, and em­ploy­ment between white and minor­ity res­id­ents in or­der to re­main pros­per­ous. It also has to fig­ure out how to con­vince young people, big busi­nesses, and start-ups that they have a bright fu­ture here.

In this series, Na­tion­al Journ­al will pro­file three tools loc­al lead­ers are us­ing to en­cour­age eco­nom­ic growth: in­vest­ing in trans­it, con­nect­ing uni­versity re­search to the mar­ket­place, and de­vel­op­ing ef­fect­ive job-train­ing pro­grams. I spoke with May­or Hodges by phone to ask about the chal­lenges Min­neapol­is is fa­cing, and how she’s work­ing to ad­dress them. Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low. My in­ter­view with St. Paul May­or Chris Cole­man will run later this week.

What is the biggest chal­lenge fa­cing the Twin Cit­ies in terms of eco­nom­ic growth and de­vel­op­ment?

The wide gaps we have in out­comes between white people and people of col­or. We have some of the biggest gaps in the coun­try on pretty much any meas­ure you care to name. And we know what the demo­graph­ics look like — by 2040, the re­gion will be ma­jor­ity minor­ity. That will hap­pen soon­er in the city of Min­neapol­is. If we don’t make sure that every­body is thriv­ing, we are go­ing to be ham­per­ing our growth po­ten­tial, both in terms of work­force de­vel­op­ment and people’s abil­ity to par­ti­cip­ate in our eco­nomy.

What can a may­or do to ad­dress these gaps and in­equal­ity?

One way is simply how we put our city to­geth­er. Are we cre­at­ing op­por­tun­it­ies where they’re needed most? That in­cludes trans­it, par­tic­u­larly light rail and street cars. In­vestors are more con­fid­ent in­vest­ing around rails than they are in­vest­ing around bus tires; they know those rails will be there in a gen­er­a­tion. And with trans­it, you bring people to jobs and jobs to people. You can put them in the neigh­bor­hoods that need them the most, and that can spur an up­ward cycle of de­vel­op­ment.

Clos­ing achieve­ment gaps has proven to be a tough chal­lenge across the coun­try. What are you do­ing in the Twin Cit­ies?

I just had the first meet­ing of our Cradle to K Cab­in­et. We’re fo­cus­ing on clos­ing gaps from pren­at­al to 3-year-olds, be­cause the first gap kids face is be­ing born healthy, with the brain de­vel­op­ment they need. As a city, that is a place where we can dir­ectly have an im­pact. We’re work­ing to make sure that preg­nant moms get the health care that they need and then stick­ing with those fam­il­ies for the first couple years of life. We also know that kids who are in stable hous­ing do bet­ter than those who aren’t, even if you con­trol for their level of poverty. So it’s vi­tal to make sure that kids and fam­il­ies have stable hous­ing. 

There’s a Uni­versity of Min­nesota pro­fess­or named Aaron So­journ­er who sits on the Cradle to K Cab­in­et. He pub­lished a study this spring that showed when you have strong sup­ports and in­ter­ven­tions for kids 3 and young­er, the res­ults of that per­sist in­to high school and bey­ond, even if there’s no sub­sequent in­ter­ven­tion. It’s a big deal. It shows that this early, early peri­od can have a trans­form­at­ive im­pact on the tra­ject­ory of a kid’s edu­ca­tion­al life.

How do you make sure there are af­ford­able hous­ing op­tions for every­one in the com­munity?

I am one of the co­chairs of Head­ing Home Hen­nepin, our 10-year plan to end home­less­ness. A big com­pon­ent of that is in­vest­ment in af­ford­able hous­ing. We’ve done a really good job with single adults, but now it’s seni­ors and it’s fam­il­ies that we’re really hav­ing to fo­cus at­ten­tion on. From a design per­spect­ive in terms of how you build a city, that’s where trans­it comes in. If some­body can live in the city without a car, you’re a step ahead of the game. I am work­ing with my team to fig­ure out the best way to spur af­ford­able hous­ing along those trans­it cor­ridors.

How has the pop­u­la­tion of Min­neapol­is changed in the past few dec­ades?

We’re ac­tu­ally grow­ing — but the biggest change is in our ra­cial and eth­nic di­versity. The older people in the com­munity are white, and the young­er people are people of col­or with ex­pand­ing fam­il­ies. The city is 60 per­cent white and 40 per­cent people of col­or. But in the pub­lic schools, it’s 70 per­cent kids of col­or and 30 per­cent white kids. That makes our achieve­ment gap a crit­ic­al chal­lenge. We have one of the biggest achieve­ment gaps in the coun­try — a 25 per­cent gradu­ation rate for Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans, a 37 per­cent gradu­ation rate for Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and Latino stu­dents.

Is there any way to turn those gradu­ation rates around?

There’s an or­gan­iz­a­tion called Gen­er­a­tion Next, which both May­or Cole­man and I sit on — former May­or [R.T.] Ry­back is the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or. It’s de­signed to close the achieve­ment gaps us­ing an evid­ence-based meth­od­o­logy and work­ing from best prac­tices. That’s why I have my Cradle to K ini­ti­at­ive. It’s not that I want to let this cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren go. But I also know that this earli­est in­ter­ven­tion can have long-term ef­fects that are only to the good.

One of the cases that I am mak­ing here and around the coun­try is for in­clus­ive growth. If we make sure that every­body can be­ne­fit from and par­ti­cip­ate in the growth that is hap­pen­ing, then every­body does bet­ter. The [In­ter­na­tion­al Mon­et­ary Fund] did a study that showed coun­tries that had a 10 per­cent de­crease in in­equal­ity had a 50 per­cent in­crease in the length of their growth spurt. Re­du­cing in­equal­ity is in every­body’s in­terest. The things we can do to make sure that every­body can par­ti­cip­ate fully in­clude edu­ca­tion but also a com­pre­hens­ive re­view of all the reg­u­la­tions around small and me­di­um-sized busi­nesses in this city and our small busi­ness and en­tre­pren­eur­i­al sup­port pro­gram. We need to be able to foster growth in every com­munity and for every per­son.

This is the first time I’ve writ­ten about a re­gion that really has two equally strong cit­ies in the same metro area. They used to have a com­pet­it­ive re­la­tion­ship, but it looks like the two cit­ies are more co­oper­at­ive than com­pet­it­ive now.

There is that his­tory — or that per­cep­tion — of com­pet­i­tion. I know that it is in the in­terest of Min­neapol­is for St. Paul to suc­ceed and for the re­gion to suc­ceed. I cheer when St. Paul does well. May­or Cole­man and I have been friends for many years, and it’s been a de­light to work with him on this light rail [link­ing Min­neapol­is and St. Paul]. I’m pretty ex­cited about it. And I have to say, it’s nice to have a may­or nearby who’s ex­per­i­enced in the job. I can call him and he totally gets it.

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