He's the future of economic development

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August 11, 2003 // UPDATED 11:02 am - April 30, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Mike Christenson has brought business, education and government together to create jobs. Now, he'll try to do it as a new city employee in a new agency.

To glimpse the city's economic-development future in lean financial times, take a trip to the troubled Phillips neighborhood and the campus of Abbott Northwestern and Children\'s hospitals.

In the neighborhood just south of Downtown, you will find job-training programs for residents, from entry-level housekeeping jobs up the career ladder to nursing. The Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) trains students for high-vacancy jobs -- and hospitals guarantee jobs for graduates. Called the Health Careers Institute, it is the nation's largest hospital-based jobs program, backers say.

Mike Christenson played a vital role in creating and shaping the program; he now will play a critical role in city development. Lee Sheehy, executive director of the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA), named Christenson the director of strategic partnerships. He started Aug. 4.

"There is a magical combination of need in the challenged communities in Minneapolis and need in the private sector for a sound workforce," Christenson said. "The challenge is to build between those two needs creatively and effectively to produce a model like this. The key to this model is you are guaranteed employment when you start. That is not an easy proposition. It requires a lot of trust from employers."

Christenson will help Sheehy create the department of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED), a mega-agency that will merge the MCDA, the city's Planning Department, the Empowerment Zone and the Minneapolis Employment and Training Program

Mayor R.T. Rybak enthusiastically supported Christenson's hire, saying in tough economic times, the city must partner more with business, nonprofits and other government agencies to get things done.

Still, Christenson's appointment has sparked criticism. Some say public-private partnerships could give the private sector too much power. Others said Christenson was a good hire but that the CPED organization was flawed.

Christenson's job description reflects a new mega-agency still in flux.

On July 11, Sheehy appointed Christenson as director of planning and strategic partnerships. In less than two weeks, Sheehy dropped planning duties from Christenson's title and portfolio.

Christenson is a trained lawyer, not a planner. Some City Councilmembers said the city's top planner should have planning experience -- and have clout equal to Christenson, not report to him.

"Planning is not going to end up a rung below everyone else," said Councilmember Gary Schiff (9th Ward), chair of the Zoning and Planning Committee.

Now, Sheehy said, he will personally oversee planning, and the planning director will be on the same level as Christenson. Christenson would drop planning but inherit some of Sheehy's workload, Sheehy said.

"For example, we have to strategically look at our theater venues Downtown," Sheehy said. "It is likely Mike [Christenson] will pick up that responsibility."

The snafu means CPED will likely have four top managers making over $100,000 a year. In March, Sheehy laid off three top MCDA executives with similar salaries, blaming the city's budget crunch.

Resume redux

Christenson, 44, of Falcon Heights, has worked as chief administrator of the Metro Transit Commission (1990-1993), Allina Health Systems Foundation executive director (1993-2001) and most recently as an attorney for Smith Parker law firm. He is a past president of the Citizens League and current board member for Franklin National Bank and St. Paul's Day One Center.

His neighborhood improvement centerpiece has been at the Phillips Partnership, a collaboration of Abbott and Children's hospitals and Wells Fargo Home Mortgage --large employers in Phillips -- and government, neighborhood and foundation representatives. The partnership has worked to improve safety, housing, job opportunities and infrastructure in Phillips, bounded by I-35W and Hiawatha Avenue and by Lake Street and I-94.

Christenson worked with the partnership at Allina and more recently as its attorney.

Among the partnership's initiatives is the I-35W Access Project, a plan to add freeway ramps in South Minneapolis. Smith Parker has lead the Access Project's public planning process. The most vocal critics of Christenson's CPED hire are those who oppose the proposed freeway ramps and view Smith Parker as the prime, self-interested mover in a bad decision.

Kingfield resident Ken Avidor is a member of STRIDE, a group formed to oppose the freeway ramps. He compared the Christenson appointment to former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton's appointment of Julie Idelkope, a Northwest Airlines lobbyist, to the city Planning Commission.

Then-citizen R.T. Rybak vigorously criticized Idelkope's appointment at the time. Laura Sether, aide to now-Mayor Rybak, called the comparison "ridiculous," noting Christenson will resign his job with Smith Parker, but Idelkope kept her lobbyist job.

Christenson said at CPED he would recuse himself from any discussions involving the freeway ramps.

City Councilmember Robert Lilligren (8th Ward) represents part of the Phillips and has worked with Christenson on neighborhood issues, he said. He credits Christenson with "incredible energy and capacity."

Yet Lilligren, also an Access Project opponent, worries about Christenson's Smith Parker ties.

"There is at least the possibility he is creating more access for the people he knows best," Lilligren said. "In the city of Minneapolis, the critical and somewhat neglected partnership is the one with the citizens. It is more difficult for the individual citizen to navigate the city and create access into the city's processes than it is for large business interests."

If his work in Phillips is an example, however, Christenson has earned the praise of neighborhood leaders. Muriel Simmons, chair of the Phillips West neighborhood and a Phillips Partnership board member, said Christenson "was greatly instrumental in keeping our crime-prevention group together. We worked on all kinds of problems, from noise to prostitution."

Beth Hart, former chair of Midtown Phillips, said, "he really gets into the community, listens to the community, asks the community's input and respects the community's input."

Career ladders and crime prevention

Christenson led organizing on several community collaborations, such as the Phillips Powderhorn Wellness Center and the Healthy Learners Board, an effort to boost school immunizations, his bio said.

He has worked to coordinate law enforcement efforts around the Lake and Chicago area, coordinating city police, county probation officers, Metro Transit police and other law enforcement officials.

"It was a matter of getting people around the table and saying, 'I am interested in doing this' -- and to get everybody to pony up some extra shifts and extra time, and figure out how we could work together," said Michael "Mick" Sandin, a Phillips neighborhood probation officer. "Mike [Christenson] is the one who brought us to the table.

Christenson said he wants to build on his Phillips experience to improve the city.

"Public safety is an economic development tool," he said. "I hope to convince the mayor and Council to allow me to work with communities who are especially burdened by crime."

The Phillips Partnership started the Train to Work program in 1999, working with Project for Pride in Living to train people for entry-level jobs.

Phil Davis, president of MCTC, 1501 Hennepin Ave. S., said Christenson approached him in 2000 to expand the program to train people for more skilled jobs, so they could move up the career ladder at Abbott and Children's hospitals and the Hennepin County Medical Center.

"I was quite taken by his enthusiasm, by how well thought out this was, by how much passion he had for improving the lives of the people in that community," Davis said. "Clearly Mike was the spark, the person who had the vision -- the one who was ensuring everybody was working together."

Christenson made sure the training lined up with the hospital\'s needs, Davis said. When the hospital had enough trained phlebotomists, for instance, MCTC discontinued the program.

"In some respects, it is like we are an extension of their [the hospitals'] human resources division," Davis said.

The Train to Work and Health Careers Institute jobs program has enrolled nearly 1,600 students in three years, according to the partnership's statistics.

Brenda Pike lives a few blocks from Abbott Northwestern Hospital, 800 E. 28th St., and attended a recent orientation for the nursing program, which will have its first class this fall. Pike and others got the basics: what books to buy, what equipment they needed.

Pike has driven cab for 17 years, she said. "I figured it was a dead-end job," she said. "I like the people contact and the challenge, so I thought a better direction for me was health care."

The Health Careers Institute was successful enough that MCTC just launched the Financial Careers Institute in conjunction with US Bank and Piper Jaffray, replicating the model in the financial services area, Davis said.

He and Christenson are talking about creating business incubator classes for new immigrants and others trying to start businesses along Lake Street. "With the revitalization of the Lake Street corridor, we think it is a logical next step," Davis said.

Asked how he would approach Downtown differently than other neighborhoods, Christenson took a pass.

"Can we hold on that for two weeks?" he said. "There is a lot I have to study. I feel good to talk about the last five or six years. I am still studying the Downtown plans."

Planning for planning

A key reason CPED exists is to better integrate planning and economic development, a connection lacking at times in city decision-making.

One recent example of conflicting goals is Downtown's Padilla, Spear, and Beardsley office building at 1101 W. River Rd. MCDA backed the project as riverfront revitalization, despite objections from city planners who said the design violated the city's Downtown surface parking lot ban and placed the building too far from the street.

When Sheehy announced Christenson would oversee planning, it caught some leaders by surprise.

Judith Martin is chair of the city's Planning Commission, which does the city\'s long-range planning and advises the City Council on matters of development, zoning and capital improvements. In the past, city leaders have consulted the comminssion when hiring a new planning director.

"None of us really knows what is going on," Martin said shortly after Christenson's hire. "None of us has been talked to about the direction for the new department, whatever it is going to be."

Schiff and others successfully argued to elevate the planning director's status in CPED.

Sheehy said current Planning Director Chuck Ballentine would remain on the job until year's end. Sheehy said he accepted responsibility for confusion about the role of the planning director.

"I had always envisioned planning shaping and informing development," Sheehy said. "That is the whole reason for creating this [new agency]. . . . I have never felt that planning takes a secondary role."

Councilmember Don Niziolek (10th Ward) is unconvinced, calling the planning director's elevated role a "superficial change."

That Christenson was initially hired to head planning "clearly shows that planning is not a priority," Niziolek said. "I have no confidence to believe we will have a strong planning voice in the city of Minneapolis because of this new structure."

What's the rush?

Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) chair of the MCDA's Operating Committee, gave Christenson high marks after her first face-to-face meeting.

"I am very impressed with his unwavering commitment to public service," she said. "He is unbelievably committed to public service work. I think it will serve this city well as we move through this important transition."

Lilligren questioned the agency's need to hire high-priced staff after it recently laid-off three top staffers in a cost-saving move.

"We are hiring three new upper management at higher salaries, which seems to contradict the earlier action," Lilligren said, before the planning director's job was elevated.

Earlier this year, citing "ferlous financial challenges" Sheehy laid off Keith Ford, director of strategic financial planning and partnerships; Terrell Towers, director of economic development; and Gerald Boardman, director of housing.

(Ford earned $100,293 a year, and Towers and Boardman earned $96,132 a year, city communications staff said. Christenson and Le Pao Xiong, the newly appointed director of housing, will each earn $100,136 a year. Sheehy said he would also hire a director of economic development, in addition to a director of planning. He also plans to eliminate a director of administration position.)

He said it was tough to make an apples-to-apples comparison between the number of top staff the old MCDA and the new CPED because the new department consisted of several agencies.

The new CPED also needed new leadership, Sheehy and the mayor said, noting Christenson's and Xiong's experience in building community partnerships.

Lilligren said he also did not understand the rush to hire top executives when CPED didn't exist yet. The council created CPED August 8.

"This to me seems haphazard or after-the-fact," Lilligren said. "If we had a policy discussion about the structure and functions and put those in place first -- then inserted the people into those positions -- it would be a cleaner way of handling it."

Sheehy said the City Council had already made most of the key decisions about CPED\'s structure, with the exception of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program.

Rybak defended the timing of the hires.

"My answer is real simple," he said. "I don't expect my entire term to be moving boxes of an org chart and changing ordinances. . . . That is important to do. But now is the time to act and move."