Minnesota's Twin Cities: partners in quality living

An urban Utopia?

Well, close to it.

A growing array of prestigious professional groups - from the American Institute of Architects to the Committee for Economic Development - have been singing the praises of the Twin Cities in recent months for what they say is the area's uniquely high-quality urban environment.

Strong corporate leadership here is generally singled out for much of the credit. And urban experts now point to Minneapolis and St. Paul as a model of the very best in public-private partnerships, in these days of federal cutbacks.

All this kudos has been showering down on Twin Cities residents like a refreshing summer rain - welcome but not necessarily solicited.

Most citizens would concede that something rather special has been going on here. Still, all that praise makes some of them slightly uncomfortable. They don't like the implication either that their cities lack problems altogether or that other urban centers lack the resources to follow suit.

What is it about these one-time flour mill and lumber cities straddling the Mississippi River that gives them such an apparent edge over other aging cities in America's ''frost belt'' in solving urban problems?

Part of the answer lies in history. There is a certain homogeneity and sense of shared values among residents. Minneapolis was settled largely by Scandinavians and Germans, who brought their Lutheran faith with them. St. Paul, long the more conservative, was settled largely by Irish Roman Catholics. Today, less than 5 percent of the area's 2.1 million people is black, Chicano, or Southeast Asian.

''There's a real social conscience here,'' says Rick Scott, political action representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and former chairman of the state's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. ''A Minnesota Republican is like everyone else's Democrat. . . . Taxes here aren't viewed as theft or as a necessarily bad thing, but as a purchase. And our social service programs are traditionally better (more generous) than federal programs.''

Although this metropolitan area has a progressive tradition and strong labor unions, it is still predominantly white-collar and middle-class. Heavy industry never got a firm toehold here. And the Twin Cities, somewhat isolated in the North Central heartland and known for their rugged winters, never had the massive influx of rural Southern poor seeking jobs in the 1950s and '60s which has remained a persistent problem for most other Northern cities.

There is also a sense of openness and honesty about the operation of politics and government here which has prevailed for the last several decades. It verged on a major scandal some years back when a county attorney from the Twin Cities attending a business conference charged taxpayers for a double rather than a single hotel room because he opted to take his wife along.

The lack of any overwhelming urban problems contributes to a certain optimism here and the feeling that such problems as there are can be controlled. In fact , Minnesotans seem to tackle that job with a certain relish.

But urban experts from other cities often say the No. 1 reason that Minneapolis and St. Paul seem to stand a breed apart as urban problem-solvers is economic.

The metropolitan area appears almost awash with high-technology industry. And on a per capita basis, the number of companies headquartered here is second only to Boston, according to a study by a University of Minnesota geography professor , John Borchert. The Twin Cities are home to such well-known giants as General Mills, Pillsbury, Control Data, 3M (Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company), Honeywell, Cargill, and the Dayton-Hudson Corporation. The list includes 13 of the Fortune 500.

The tradition of business and foundation giving in the Twin Cities is notably generous. It is here that the well-known 2 and 5 percent clubs, by which companies set aside that much of their pre-tax earnings for charity, had their start. Nationally, the business giving average is closer to 1 percent, though other cities have copied the ''club'' idea. Between the two clubs, the Twin Cities have 88 steady business givers.

Businesses have also helped financially by teaming up in a variety of consortia to do everything from helping small businesses get started with low-interest loans to revitalizing inner-city housing.

The Downtown Council, for instance, an organization of some 350 local businesses, sprang up promptly in 1955 when General Mills announced it was going to move its headquarters to the suburbs and Dayton-Hudson said it planned to put a branch store in one of the big suburban shopping centers.

The council, working hard from that early date to ward off central city decay , drew up plans for what is now the 12-block-long, red brick Nicollet Mall, the first such downtown pedestrian mall in the country, and an elaborate system of elevated, enclosed sidewalks or ''skyways'' connecting a large area of parking, offices, and stores.

But it's more than money that is keeping the Twin Cities in energetic forward motion. There is an unusually widespread, intense community interest here in urban improvement and public-policy issues. Many Minnesotans talk about the need to better everything, from city parking policies to public housing, at breakfast , lunch, and dinner - literally. A variety of discussion forums have been set up for just that purpose. And every time a visitor claims to have found and pinpointed each of these myriad mechanisms, another one surfaces. In the Twin Cities, civic responsibility is definitely ''in.''

''People here have kind of a vocation of public service,'' explains John E. Brandl, a state legislator and public affairs professor with the University of Minnesota. ''There's an expectation of dialogue and easy communication. I think we're in better shape than a lot of cities because as businessmen, politicians, and citizens, we're all still talking to each other.''

''The philanthropy really isn't as important as this atmosphere of shared responsibility,'' agrees Ted Kolderie, a senior fellow at the university's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. ''The Twin Cities happen to have a large number of really bright, concerned people who happen to combine sophisticated knowledge with independent judgment. In any city you may have a lot of people who know what's going on and what the problems are. But here, because of all the established mechanisms in place, they're in a stronger position to do something about them.''

Until two years ago Mr. Kolderie was executive director of one of the most conspicuous and influential of these forums: the Citizens League. Here some 3, 000 individuals pay $20 a year (another 600 businesses pay at least $100 each) for the privilege of researching, discussing, and recommending ways to improve everything from property tax inequities to school desegregation plans.

Among the league's several accomplishments: the creation in 1967 of a Metropolitan Council which plans areawide policies in common areas of interest; an agreement that a full 40 percent of the taxes from new commercial and industrial development be shared by cities in all seven counties in the Twin Cities area. Some outside urban experts consider the latter a remarkable example of local revenue sharing.

Various citizen task forces in the league come together every two weeks for up to a year to hear the results of research by league staff and outside experts on a particular topic. The task force then discusses solutions until it reaches a consensus. It is partly the length and depth of this process that causes the reasoning and conclusions of a task force report to be treated with considerable respect by public policy decisionmakers.

''These people perform a valuable service by making new ideas respectable faster,'' says Representative Brandl. ''They can move the (political) process along more quickly.''

Still, there are a few Twin Cities residents who say the strong emphasis on consensus is overdone.''

The fact that there aren't enough resources to go around means having to set priorities, and that inevitably involves some conflict,'' explains Earl Craig Jr. Mr. Craig is the respected head of the Twin Cities Urban Coalition, a group that acts as an advocate for the poor. He recently served on the Citizens League board of directors and wrote a strong dissenting opinion to the league's ''consensus'' endorsement of educational vouchers.

''Conflict isn't necessarily a dirty word,'' he says, ''but there's a tendency here to paper over any dissent. We at times rush to consensus while there's still some real division there.''

It is not just the average citizen who is mired in discussion forums here. Several dozen chief executive officers of the metropolitan area's close-knit corporate community also sit down in seminars four or five times a year to talk over their duty as responsible civic partners in such areas as pollution, product safety, crime, and affirmative action. As with the Citizens League, businesses must pay ($600 to $2,500 each) for the privilege of being members of this Minnesota Project on Corporate Responsibility. But generally money is not on the agenda. The aim is to stimulate the best thinking on topics of common interest.

By and large, as local leaders see it, they have been able to keep one step ahead of problems by keeping a long-range focus. This look-ahead tendency, they say, can be seen as long ago as Minneapolis's decision in the late 1800s to set aside the 13 lakes within its boundaries as public park property and by the Twin Cities' early attack on the downtown decay problem with the mall and skyways. More recently, school officials quickly and firmly closed 18 public schools in Minneapolis because of declining enrollment.

''To survive up here we've had to develop ways to spot problems early and get at them,'' explains Mr. Kolderie. He credits the area's two major newspapers, now merged as the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, as ''incalculably'' important in that job. ''We've learned that we can't afford to wait until crises develop to generate the needed motivation to do something about them.''

Then, too, there has always been a certain expectation that action will follow any discussion.

''There's a feeling that what happens in all these groups will have some impact,'' says Rick Scott. ''It's never a matter of a blue ribbon commission talking a subject to death.''

A longtime Twin Cities lawyer who declined to be quoted offers this as a partial explanation:

''Our climate keeps people from choosing this as a place to retire to. . . . We don't have a jet set, and there isn't any socially dominant group of idle rich. You don't have much social standing here unless you work.''

Does all this add up to a ''mission impossible'' for other cities to emulate?

There is no question that the Twin Cities have been blessed with unusually strong dollar resources, thanks to their being the home base for so many still prospering companies. What also helps here, however, is a less tangible catalyst: ample local initiative and plenty of forums for public policy action. Many here insist these cannot be imposed by outside forces, however well meaning.

''I've had numerous talks with people wanting to start something like the Minnesota Project on Corporate Responsibility in other cities,'' notes MPCR director Donald Imsland. That project was started by a small group of local chief executive officers (CEOs) in 1977 after they returned from a conference in Northern Minnesota on corporate responsibility. ''But to make something like this work, it really has to come from CEOs themselves. Here it was simply they wanted to do it, and they did it.''

While civic interest in local problems is surely high in many cities, most communities probably have a way to go before that interest becomes quite as steady a part of the daily diet as it has in Minneapolis and St. Paul.''The very idea of having a serious conversation before the day begins still horrifies a lot of people,'' Mr. Kolderie insists.

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