Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
The chicken-and-egg problems confronting the Twin Cities' downtowns are puzzlers: Are people avoiding downtown because they think there isn't much going on, or is not much going on because people have been avoiding downtown? Does the once-vibrant office culture need to come back for downtown to thrive, or must downtown thrive before office culture will come back? Do visitors stay away because of a fear of crime, or is crime a problem because so many people stay away?
The questions are all circular. Their circular nature points to a solution: What's needed is a leap of faith, or maybe many small leaps of faith — something that will break the cycle and give people confidence that they can once again venture into the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Civic leaders are working to spread the word that coming downtown rewards the effort.
It's worth remembering that the drag on the downtowns' economic and social vitality did not begin with the arrival of COVID-19 and the shutdown it prompted. Critics had long pointed to the skyways as a misguided initiative that sapped the life from downtown streetscapes. The lure of suburban malls with acres of free surface parking were a potent challenge to downtown retailers. Once-classy department stores gave way to discount chains, which gave way to empty storefronts.
But the pandemic made everything worse. Workers who once took their lunch breaks eating and shopping in the skyways and who met for drinks in the bars after work were suddenly absent, and a large number remained absent even after the pandemic eased. Some employers discovered that it was possible to run their businesses with a remote workforce. And the employees had discovered that it was possible to earn a paycheck while working from home — and that if their current employer preferred that they report to the office, they had the leverage to demand at least some flexibility.
So civic leaders are facing a conundrum: How can they bring people back downtown, after they've gotten out of the habit? And especially now that their jobs no longer require it?
The good news is that civic-minded leaders in both St. Paul and Minneapolis are working to provide solutions that can make their downtowns more appealing, and fun. The Taste of Minnesota festival arrives in Minneapolis this summer, reviving after a long but uneven record in St. Paul and elsewhere. Mayor Jacob Frey points out, with justifiable enthusiasm, that Minneapolis will play host to Pride events and Taylor Swift in a single weekend. A Pride festival is happening in St. Paul, too, as well as the Lowertown Sounds outdoor concert series in Mears Park.
Admittedly, these events might be happening even without the involvement of the mayors and other civic boosters. A good part of what downtown advocates are attempting is simply a public-relations campaign. But it is essential, and it is ambitious. It may encourage people to take that leap of faith — faith that enough of their fellow citizens will show up to generate some energy, to reward the participating businesses, to create some safety in numbers.
We're eager to see whether new initiatives to improve safety have an effect on the viability of light rail in the Twin Cities. If people are afraid to take the train or bus downtown, whether for work or recreation, then no amount of happy-hour promotions will help. But for now, we're grateful for the work of public servants who are trying to restore public confidence and interest in the downtowns. And we sincerely hope the public will respond.