Louder than words

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October 8, 2002 // UPDATED 1:31 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Sam Grabarski
Sam Grabarski

Mixed messages from City Hall are hurting Downtown

Poor Richard said in his Almanac in 1766 that "Actions speak louder than words." This thought came to him as he was curbed and scolded by a traffic supervisor for driving in a restricted lane in downtown Boston, no doubt.

A woman who was curbed and scolded in Downtown called me to report on her experience. A public servant condemned her as a scofflaw, which triggered a personal vow to never return to Downtown. I admitted to making the same impulsive turn onto 2nd Avenue while dazed by the rerouted traffic from 3rd Avenue. This endless closure of one of our few east-west arteries has ruined the 11th Street freeway exit for hundreds of drivers daily. I don't recommend turning onto 2nd Avenue, however. I sat peevishly within a string of buses, feeling like a baitfish among sharks. Although the caller was amused by my story, she didn't recant her vow of exile.

At a time when we're trying to coax people into shopping or visiting, it appears policy-makers think we need to crack down on people confused by Downtown's labyrinth of one-way streets and restricted turns. A proposal is circulating around City Hall that would stiffen the penalties for people caught driving in the restricted traffic lanes. I'm thinking of changing our marketing plan for the holiday season, based on this logic. "Get curbed in Downtown Minneapolis. We'll impound your car, so you won't need to park it."

The City of Brakes is alive with mixed messages in 2002. High vacancy rates are a dead weight on Downtown's economy, but larger companies trying to locate here can be criticized openly for asking about parking deals with the city. Utility and street maintenance crews can hold drivers hostage for two days or two years with impunity, but the private sector builder of Block E must be fined $300,000 for blocking lanes. A revolutionary plan to streamline city government and improve efficiency has also led to a resolution that no one will lose jobs as a result of it. The serious structural problems in the next 10 city budgets have led to a belt-tightening plan to increase taxes by "only" eight percent annually going forward.

"What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander" goes back to 1670. City officials howled at Brookfield Properties a few months ago for defaulting on a loan for one of the Gaviidae properties. Ironically enough, the City of Minneapolis is hinting at the same problems with its own debt service on the Target Center. Competition, lower revenues and declining property value are placing some strains on the city's ability to make payments, it seems. Minneapolis wouldn't allow Brookfield to restructure its loan based on those same problems. No one is suggesting that Minneapolis won't make payments.

Minneapolis did a great thing when it bought the Target Center in 1995. The building was saved, and so was the Timberwolves franchise. The debt is serviced by property and entertainment taxes, nearby parking ramp revenues and grants. Due to a decline in property value, the building isn't generating the taxes as expected. Taxes on tickets cannot be collected if the blockbuster events continue to go to Xcel Energy Center. Tenants say the Target Center will need repairs and upgrades to compete with Xcel. A contract with the Timberwolves calls for a new scoreboard "after 2002" with a probable price tag of $3 million. I suppose this vague provision could be met if the scoreboard is installed by 3002, when Baghdad joins the NBA.

My favorite inconsistency in the private sector is the breadth of business support for candidates who promise to not raise taxes, even though the projected state deficit now exceeds $3 billion for the next biennium. "Sure, they'll raise taxes, but not as much" is the usual explanation to that blip in logic.

That means I should I vote for candidates who say they won't build light rail, because they really mean they will. As you ponder all this, take comfort in this quote from Mark Twain: "Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example."

Sam Grabarski is president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, a group of business leaders.