Minnesota whines about improving itself

Published 9:18 am Friday, April 19, 2013

Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling

Last year it was all about the Minnesota Vikings. Give us money, the team’s owners and the NFL said. No, replied politicians (and many Minnesotans).

Spend your own money, was the answer the NFL kept getting. So, we’ll be leaving, then, the Vikings loudly hinted. And the NFL simpered, Don’t wait up for us because we might not be coming back.

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So the democratic governor and the Republican Legislature cobbled together a way to save face for themselves and still keep a professional football team in the Twin Cities. While I wasn’t a big fan of the method chosen to finance it (in part because I didn’t understand how it was supposed to work), I was a solid supporter of a government subsidy. I have too many friends who love the Vikings.

This year, at the state level, the Mayo Clinic has stepped onto the field, looking for a state subsidy to pay for infrastructure improvements in Rochester. Mayo believes that a world-class clinic — which Mayo is, with no arguments about that from anyone — deserves a metropolitan setting that is also world-class, with more of the amenities that visiting patients and resident doctors expect. That’s the part that’s arguable, apparently.

At the same time, at the local level, there’s a local subsidy issue here in Albert Lea, with the much discussed and delayed projects to upgrade infrastructure and “renovate” the downtown commercial district in Albert Lea. Downtown — mainly Broadway, but Main and the other streetscapes — has needed some of this infrastructure work for years. And since streets and sidewalks will be torn up anyway, it seems almost logical that facelifts of public and private spaces also be included in the project.

Both of these projects are encountering some obstacles. Mayo has a lot of skeptics in the Legislature, who bring up complaints and objections that I don’t completely understand. Albert Lea’s projects bring out the skeptics because estimates of costs didn’t pan out; the bids are all above the amount expected and budgeted.

The larger issues for all these kinds of proposals involve the criteria by which they should be judged.

For example, are the projects desirable or essential? Or how much is the public cost versus that carried by the private landowners or business owners who would benefit?

Whatever the criteria are, if the project is using public funds and is supposed to benefit all citizens, the criteria used to evaluate it need to be out in the open. Likewise, the criteria used to justify a judgement against support for those same things need to also be transparent.

At this point, I still believe that if we really want the Mayo Clinic to remain a world-class medical destination, we need to be able to envision the kind of city that supports it. And the rest of Minnesota needs to be doing its part to help Rochester, even if the direct benefit is hard to see.

Likewise, I believe that if we want a downtown commercial and residential district in which lots of people are going to shop and some are going to live, we need to do something. And all the city’s residents need to be involved in helping to pay for it.

Why? Because we all will benefit. Successful small business owners (the ones located downtown) provide a much larger economic benefit compared with the big-box and chain stores at the edge of town. And it may seem like a small issue, but if this project does something about those terrible traffic lights downtown, I will benefit in not having to sit waiting for a green light at an intersection with absolutely no cross traffic.

I have no idea what will happen to these different proposals. But if you look back at decisions involving the spending of public money — even at the original decision to build the Metrodome itself — there’s a more accurate way to describe the attitude of Minnesota residents than the phrase we usually hear. While being polite still seems important, there are limits when it comes to spending money, apparently and so Minnesota cheap would be a more accurate label, or Minnesota whining and complaining.

But Minnesota Nice? Not so much when it comes to asking the government to spend money on anything.
David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.