Features

Native son: Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak

Sounding Off: Promoter in chief

For Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak, boosting business has been a top priority

By Steve Mollman

As the mayor of Minneapolis since 2001, R.T. Rybak has done a great deal to help local companies thrive and attract talent. In December 2012, he announced that he would not run for another term. We felt this was a good time to ask him about his experiences in the office. (Read the full transcript here.)

Are mayors in some ways more attuned to the needs of the business community than other politicians?

I don't think people come into the mayor's office necessarily more connected to business, especially small business. I think it's difficult to leave the office unconnected, because so much of the work of making a city work is about helping small business. My background, I think, is different than most people who come here, who come up through the political level. I grew up as the kid of parents who ran a corner drug store. So entrepreneurship and small business are literally in my blood.

You have a large Twitter following. How does social media in general make you a better mayor, or influence the way you go about your job?

They help me have a deeper two-way dialog with people. They've also been core to a lot of my work in promoting small businesses. Every other day I'm tweeting about some new brewery opening, or a great new restaurant I've been to, or a new store that opened up. I've been able to use social media to be the promoter in chief. And that's, I think, helpful.

How can Minneapolis up its coolness factor in terms of helping businesses attract top talent who might be looking at other places?

Talent is very mobile these days. Having your city have a hip vibe to it is about more than just having fun. It literally brings dollars into our pockets. The cooler we are, the more we can attract talented people to keep our businesses on the cutting edge and often start new ones that break new barriers.

When Travel + Leisure rated us one of the top tourism destinations in the world this year, it was good for bragging rights, but it was especially good for our attempt to attract new talented people.

Before I was mayor I was vice president of an Internet company right when the Internet was starting, and talent attraction was a huge issue for us and for everybody else in that field. We lost a lot of talent to the coasts as the Internet was springing up. The tide has turned now, and we're attracting many more people here.

Even in the summer in Minneapolis you don't see a lot of people walking on the streets like in Manhattan. What can be done to improve that?

A: Minneapolis at its peak in the '50s had 500,000 people. We went down to 325,000 and now we're back to almost 400,000. My goal is to get back up to 500,000 and maybe more. That doesn't mean tearing down single-family houses for skyscrapers. It means dramatically increasing density along transit corridors.

What about the skyway? What are the pros and cons of it, and how would you like to see it change?

I was just in Washington, in incredibly cold weather, and people went to their office and stayed inside all day. That would happen in Minneapolis if we didn't have a skyway that allowed people to move from building to building even in rotten weather. It does something very good. The problem is that the system also competes with the street, and to fix that I don't believe we should build a single other skyway that does not have a visible connection down to the street, like the IDS Center does so well, or the Target store downtown.

I got a lot of criticism for removing barriers to food trucks in the core of downtown from businesses in the skyways. I'll do some things to respond to that, but we did prove that people do want to be down on the streets. So if building owners didn't like that, open restaurants on the ground floor, because we've proven that people want innovative food on the ground floor, and they don't just want be floating up in the skies.

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How has the light rail system changed the city for business so far?

Light rail has had an extremely significant impact on the city and will more when we get the second light rail line. But it should be put in the context of a larger transportation improvement. The largest single transit improvement that has helped downtown has been remaking Marquette and Second, where our express buses come into downtown. A few years ago, the buses were lined up in a single lane on each street, creating massive congestion at rush hour and making it slower to get through downtown and to downtown. We changed that by dramatically remaking the city, having two bus lanes in each direction, and staggering stops and putting improved transit signage there. We're getting three times the number of buses through, dramatically easier, and a much, much more appealing environment.

Our region is going to grow. That means gridlock in places that don't have transit, and it means success where you're not dependent on a car. We will be able to grow and be dramatically more successful, while other parts of our area will be gridlocked. Take Austin ... I'm not afraid of competing with Austin because they have no political consensus to build transit, and they're going to be gridlocked along a single freeway line. I do worry about competing with Denver, where they have been more aggressive in building more transit lines than us.

I have to ask, did you coin the phrase ‘Brain Exchange'?

Yes I did. The idea was ... CoCo and Project Skyway were looking at doing co-working spaces, and I heard they were looking in the suburbs. I said, ‘You guys, downtown is where it's at.' And I came back to them with the idea of saying, ‘Let's have the Grain Exchange become the Brain Exchange.' Think about this: Our city had very successful mills on the river, but they only turned into corporate giants like General Mills and Pillsbury because the people in the Grain Exchange figured out how to use that space to share ideas and innovation and bring products to market. Now that exact same trading floor is taking all these incredibly innovative ideas and moving them out to market. And one by one the businesses that have been in the co-locating space are now taking space in the building, and I see that building in a couple of years being filled with growing tech startups started on that trading floor. That's incredibly exciting to me. It's one of my favorite things that's happened.

The Midtown Exchange building and its Midtown Global Market seem to have been a success in terms of bringing business to a neighborhood. Do you feel that's a formula that can be repeated in other neighborhoods in the city?

Well that was one of our biggest accomplishments. I'm really proud of it. Boy, I hope I never again am faced with the challenge of the second-largest building in the city being vacant, filled with bat dung, and, uh, [laughs] seemingly no future.

I remember looking at that early on and thinking, ‘I don't know what we're going to do here.' So the good news was, we learned a lot on that project. We learned to give more credit to some of our businesses, in that case Allina, that they would make a very bold move that wound up being an incredibly smart business move for them, and a phenomenal thing for the city. But that was a gutsy move by Allina.

We also learned to have confidence in creating unique attractions, as opposed to ones that copied others. The ground floor space was originally being sought by a very large mega-Latino grocery. We knew if we leased to them, they would be successful - and they might also put half the groceries, put the entrepreneurs on Lake Street out of business. That would have been a disaster. We instead said, ‘Let's do something based on entrepreneurs, the food and the culture of this city,' and worked with a neighborhood development center to do the Global Market, which has been one of the great attractions in the city. It's doing extremely well.

People come from all over to try to imitate it. But you can't imitate it because it's of this place. Do your own, have it reflect your city, but the Global Market only works here because of the populations we have here. I'd love to do more of them, but, wow, half the gray hair on my head came from that deal.

What are your thoughts on the Step-Up summer jobs program?

Step-Up is closest to me personally because I've gotten to know so many incredible kids. For the future of the city as a whole it's going to have an enormous impact because we've taken 16,000 kids, 86 percent kids of color, 93 percent kids in poverty, 50 percent immigrants, and gotten them into summer jobs. Imagine a decade from now, knowing that there are 16,000 kids who speak almost every language on the planet, come from multiple diverse backgrounds, making this community far more globally savvy and competitive than any other community. The diversity of our diversity is more diverse than almost any other place. That means that if we get this generation trained and into the workforce, like we're doing with Step-Up, a few years from now, our companies will be better able to compete. People who've supported me on that are Ken Powell of General Mills - who knows that they're sending people to Africa, and they need people who we have in this city who speak multiple African dialogs - and Omar Ishrak, the CEO of Medtronic, who was born in Pakistan and recognizes the importance of a globally savvy workforce. Business leaders like this understand that we're creating something far, far better than any other city in getting an extremely diverse workforce out of our schools.

In terms of the business environment, what are you most anxious to accomplish before your term is up?

I want to recognize there are times to step in but also some times to get out of the way. The times we've gotten out of the way have been some of the most successful: allowing more food trucks, breaking down barriers that made it possible for breweries to open, cutting red tape and regulation for everyone. You know, I grew up in a small business, so I know the No. 1 thing you want is, you want a city government that's run well, that doesn't get in your way, and in a crunch is on your side.

I think that's what we've done.

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