Lowertown Media asked all the candidates how we'd approach finding solutions to our concerns about St. Paul and building upon our strengths. Here's one of my answers-
My overall concerns about St. Paul include: establishing/maintaining relationships with institutions, organizations, and the grassroots communities so everyone feels that they have a relationship with the city, that their contributions are recognized by the city, and that we can all collaborate together and contribute to addressing/solving the big issues.
Included in the big issues are our 25% poverty rate, the achievement gap, climate change/energy, housing affordability, the overuse of TIF, directing resources back to the neighborhoods, creating more career pathways and opportunities and the skills gaps between jobs available and what potential employees are bringing to the table.
So let me unpack some of that.
I was the only mayoral candidate to attend the majority of the city council/mayor initiated Citizens League meetings discussing the possibility of establishing a PILOT/SILOT (payment/services in lieu of taxes) program in St. Paul. Essentially this program would ask for a voluntary contribution towards city services from property tax-exempt institutions to cover essential city services. (It's estimated this would bring in about $2 million to the city's budget.)
At the last Citizen's League meeting a committee member made a motion to change language from the document that said all the non-profit institutions were feeling unappreciated to wording that some of them felt unappreciated. It was voted down 16-3. This suggests not only that the leading St. Paul institutions don't have a good relationship with the city but goes to the heart of the question about how to address top challenges and build on strengths.
Our slogan is "the most livable city in America". But what does that mean? I've asked business owners what would make the biggest difference to grow our downtown economy and economy throughout the city. In addition to the ideas I espouse, such as integrating principles of lean urbanism (essentially reducing red tape and bureaucracy) through learning from pilot programs like the one on the East Side, and hiring business navigators to help entrepreneurs through the maze of conflicting regulations and departments (including in what order to do what), we need to re-brand our city so we recognize and appreciate the specifics of what we have.
Our 'livability' includes an unparalleled combination of medical, educational, cultural, natural, business and people-powered assets. We need to 'own' these assets, and use the bully pulpit to promote them, both inside and outside the city.
Implementing a re-branding could start with PILOT/SILOT city conversations with these institutions-first asking about what they're contributing to the city that they're proud of, and thanking them. (If we're going to ask more from everyone, it's a really good idea to thank them first for what they're already doing.)
The Citizens League estimates a PILOT program could yield about $2 million to the city budget. Whether it goes into the general fund or we allow some form of institutional earmarking of their contributions should be discussed. Earmarking could give institutional buy-in to the city's welfare and provide a way for the institutions to personalize their contributions.
The SILOT program also offers significant opportunities to utilize unique institutional strengths in our community. As Hamline University's decades-long partnership with Hamline Elementary School has shown, sustained commitment and resources directed at public schools by private institutions forges a stronger community and higher achievement rates, particularly in underserved areas. This could be replicated in a SILOT program across the city with other higher educational institutions as partners.
If we want to further address the achievement gap and provide more opportunities for St. Paulites, we need to build on existing resources (like expanding the Right Track program which provides summer jobs to teenagers in business and government) and reinforcing partnerships between local colleges like St. Paul College, unions and businesses, particularly in the area of health care.
Economist Dr. Bruce Corrie of Concordia has identified that nurses are the top needed job in the Twin Cities (with other health care workers like personal aides and nursing assistants also in the top ten) now and going into the future. Given the number of hospitals in the downtown, it is to our benefit to nurture homegrown talent to supply that need, providing ways for personal care/nursing assistants to acquire the additional education/training to move up into more skilled living wage jobs. Both the International Institute of Minnesota and Jewish Community Action provides that type of training at very low or no cost.
Highlighting programs that already exist and making sure people who could benefit know about them is something I love to do, having already connected organizations with each other while on the campaign trail (Brothers in Blue Big Brother/Big Sister to the St. Paul police, Heart of Dance to Allina and Hamline Elementary School, as well as a number of individuals I've encountered to resources that could help them: a woman in substandard housing to city inspectors, a man whose small dog had been killed defending his children from a pit bull to animal control, an unemployed man seeking union work as a pipefitter). I'm all about connecting people to organizations and maximizing existing programs.
Regular, consistent dialogue with institutional partners is key to both maintaining city-community partnerships (and involving citizens). Once parameters of a PILO/SILOT program are identified, I'd propose quarterly meetings with colleges, hospitals and non-profits to maintain relationships, share and celebrate successes and address challenges. And all that is grist for presenting/re-branding how St. Paul works inside and outside Minnesota.
Let's make the most of what St. Paul has to offer in the areas of culture, nature, business, health, education, and people-powered assets. Let's own it and celebrate it and use it to attract more of what we want: living wage jobs, a clean environment, great education, and a place people want to be.
P.S. And for those of you who may be wondering how Sandy is doing-well, her substandard apartment was inspected. And her landlord made repairs the same day and is being a whole lot nicer to her.
P.P.S. And if you'd like to view the entire Lowertown Media Candidate Forum hosted by Erik Eskola at the History Theater, go here: