Mike Bleakmore takes advantage of the climate-controlled skyway system on a bright and blustery January day. Bleakmore co-created skywaymyway.com, an interactive guide to the Minneapolis skyways. Photo by Dylan Thomas

A skyway sherpa

Skyway My Way’s Mike Bleakmore co-created a skyway navigation tool

Type “Minneapolis skyway” into Google and the first hit isn’t the city’s convention and visitors bureau or Wikipedia or any of the flurry of recent news stories covering the debate over whether the network of second-floor walkways is a boon to downtown pedestrians or the bane of urban street life.

The top search result is skywaymyway.com, an interactive map launched by Mike Bleakmore and Daine Billmark in the spring of 2010, when the two were coworkers at eBureau, a St. Cloud-based analytics firm with an office in downtown Minneapolis. The webpage includes a regularly updated directory of skyway-level shops, restaurants and attractions, historical information on many of the buildings linked to the downtown skyway network and a navigation tool that gives building-by-building directions to pedestrians.

Bleakmore described Billmark, a web developer, as “the smarts behind the operation.” Bleakmore brought the skyway know-how.

“I would go in the backdoors and back ways (of the skyway) and basically stay out of the cold, and he was always impressed with that,” Bleakmore said.

But that didn’t help the two one wintry night when they were at the W Minneapolis hotel with their wives and planning a trip to the Capital Grille for dinner. The group was dressed for a night out, and they wanted to avoid stepping out into the cold. They asked for skyway directions, but no one at the hotel could help them.

“So, we hopped in a cab and drove three blocks, or whatever it is, to the Capital Grille,” Bleakmore said. “We thought over dinner, this is really something where there ought to be an interactive skyway map.”

The map they created offers this route from the W Hotel in Foshay Tower: cross to TCF Tower, cut through Baker Center, hang a left to IDS Center, cut across the Crystal Court to Macy’s, veer left into Highland Bank Court and soon you’ve arrived in LaSalle Plaza, home to Capital Grille.

He said the site gets about 25,000 unique visitors per month, but visits peak in the wintertime — along with skyway traffic. These days, about 60 percent of users access the site through their mobile phones, a significant shift in usage since the website launched.

Bleakmore said GPS navigation is “notoriously difficult” at the skyway level. Signals ricochet off of tall downtown buildings, and the accuracy is not fine enough for turn-by-turn navigation.

They’ve pitched several possible technological solutions to the Skyway Advisory Committee, but they haven’t found a group willing to partner with Skyway My Way and make an investment.

“I think the challenge of the skyways is that it’s a confederation of tall these building owners, so there’s no one decision-maker,” Bleakmore said.

“Certainly Skyway My Way is an existing resource, and they have aspirations about how their resource can be further enhanced,” said Steve Cramer, president and CEO of Minneapolis Downtown Council, who has made several times over the years with Bleakmore and Billmark, most recently in his capacity as chair of the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee’s Wayfinding Committee.

Bleakmore sees both sides of the skyway debate. He’s in agreement with Skyway Avoidance Society founder Eric Dayton: Minneapolitans should “embrace” winter, not hide from it.

“But I think the reality for downtown professionals is you need to go grab a lunch in half an hour and come back, and you’d rather not bring your mittens and hat and galoshes,” he said. “That’s just the reality, being a pragmatic Midwesterner. It’s there, and it’s really convenient.”

Ironically, Bleakmore has since taken a new job in the suburbs and Billmark is based in St. Cloud, so neither of the skywaymyway.com founders are regularly using the skyway to grab lunch these days. When Bleakmore does find himself downtown, he often spends some time walking the skyway to update his site’s business listings.

“It’s remarkable how much turnover there is,” he said. “That is the main challenge.”

Less of a challenge is responding to the roughly three calls per week, on average, that ring into a phone number posted on the “Contact” section of the website.

“They think we’re the authority,” Bleakmore said.


Mike Bleakmore’s skyway top three

The skywaymyway.com co-founder shared his three favorite sections of the downtown Minneapolis skyway network.

  1. Wells Fargo Center to Six Quebec

This skyway, with a central section of colored glass panels, is the work of Twin Cities-based artist Siah Armajani, who also designed the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge connecting the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to Loring Park.

“That’s my favorite,” Bleakmore said.

  1. IDS Center

When it opened in 1974, the IDS Center was the first downtown building with skyway connections in four directions. It remains a hub of the network.

“The IDS, with its windows and skylights, is just a pleasure to walk through,” he said.

  1. Rand Tower

Typical of the older sections in the network, the skyway connections to this 1929 skyscraper (added decades after it first opened) are narrower than other corridors in the network. But they still feel comfortable to walk through, Bleakmore said, adding that it might have something do with the building’s stunning Art Deco design.