An annual survey of business leaders shows lots of confidence in Downtown, but concerns growing about crime, congestion and taxes
One thing I want for Christmas is a filter that removes all news reports about foods I shouldn't eat anymore. This week's laugher was an FDA report that potato chips and French fries contain a chemical that causes cancer in animals at high doses. Of course, the only way to reach those high doses is to eat tubs of French fries at every meal. Santa, who looks like he loves fried potatoes, should give no presents to researchers who release such news during the holiday season.
I'm not Santa, but I do get lists of wishes and wants from an annual polling of business leaders involved with Downtown. Ask them what they think keeps planning on the right track, and it's interesting to monitor changing priorities over time. For example, 76 percent of them (an increase) think it is important for Downtown to have a full-scale grocery store. Eighty-seven percent are optimistic about the future of Downtown over the next 10-15 years. Nearly all say there's an advantage for their company to be located in the heart of the city.
Opinions have darkened over the year about crime and safety. Last December, most felt that Downtown was just about as safe as it was a year earlier. This year, 52 percent feel that Downtown is less safe than a year ago. Nuisance crimes, especially panhandling, are particularly troublesome. Business leaders are unanimous that sanctions should increase for the 100 chronic offenders who are so frequently arrested that everyone knows them by name. Two-thirds picked "more beat patrol officers" as the best strategy to improve the general street life experience for employees and visitors.
Business leaders have grumbled all summer about how the city's approach to coordinating road construction projects (Chaos Is Us) scuttled efforts to recruit new employers to Downtown spaces. No surprise that most polled think Downtown is much more congested today than a year ago. City and LRT road crews caused such backups on streets and parking ramps that visiting prospects couldn't see past the cars in front of them, and said no to bargain leasing rates. The $4.56 billion state deficit probably means lower financial aid to cities, so it's too bad we won't be adding new businesses to the tax roles, just when we needed them.
One incentive to new tenants, reduced parking rates, continues to be controversial at City Hall. Business leaders appear to be at peace with the policy concept, however. Sixty-seven percent said "Yes" to the question, "Should public ramps provide incentives to help recruit new tenants to Downtown?"
Knowing that transportation funding will be a hot topic at the legislature, we polled to see if gas or sales taxes were acceptable for this purpose. Ninety-three percent favored a gas tax of five cents or more. Minnesota's Constitution guides the distribution of this tax, sending much of it outside the metro area, and limits its application to roads. A sales tax on gas wouldn't carry such baggage, but business leaders are leery of extensions of sales taxes. Gas today, clothes tomorrow? Over half voted "no" to a sales tax on gas. However, as contradictory as it sounds, 66 percent think the public should be allowed to vote on a half-cent metro-wide sales tax to build a modern, regional transportation system.
As standards of maintenance on Nicollet Mall have waned, so has confidence in the special assessments system. I extolled the virtues of business improvement districts in a Skyway column a few months ago. However, half of the business folks polled think an expansion of Downtown's only service district, to include at least Hennepin Avenue, isn't much of a priority now, or don't care. In sharp contrast, only a few years ago a super majority thought the opposite. I'll be swimming upstream on this issue, it appears.
Which word causes more stress in you, carcinogens or taxes? "Taxes" is the answer for anyone who recently received their projected property tax bills for 2003. Homeowners in Minneapolis and Hennepin County are seeing combined increases of 30 percent in some cases. Ninety-percent of our business leaders polled think we should resist levy rate increases at the city and county level over the next five years. Ninety percent think it important to fight against property tax increases during the 2003 legislative session. The thought of a lifetime of fiber, fruits and vegetables causes me stress, so I'm going to leave you now to enjoy a tub or two of you-know- whats.
Sam Grabarski is president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, a group of business leaders.