For more than 13 years — 11 at the St. Paul Port Authority and the past two-plus as president and CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce — B Kyle has worked mostly behind the scenes, quietly building relationships to boost the capital city’s development fortunes. Now Kyle said it’s time to step out more forcefully for her 1,200 members. The first big issue? Public safety.
While applauding Mayor Melvin Carter’s community-first safety plan that seeks to boost youth employment and outreach as a good long-term strategy, Kyle said something else is badly needed: more officers on the street.
“I would say that he’s half right. He’s missing a piece of it,” she said of Carter’s plan to dilute the factors that contribute to crime, such as economic hardship, hopelessness or boredom. “I want something else. I just think it’s a false dichotomy. It’s not ‘either/or.’ It’s ‘and.’ ”
The city must address a growing fear that crime is unchecked, she said. Among those who work and do business in St. Paul — from the small shops along University Avenue to the multinational corporations downtown — that perception is eroding confidence and stalling momentum, Kyle said. At the same time the city’s population is booming and its tax base is growing, St. Paul has seen the greatest number of homicides in 25 years.
Perceptions matter, Kyle said.
A move by Carter to pare five officers from what had been a plan to add 12 next year sends the wrong message, she said. She is urging him to restore those positions, even writing a commentary published Nov. 7 in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Kyle said Carter needs to pay attention to the concerns of the business community.
“I have a responsibility to share the voices of the people standing behind me and with me,” Kyle said of the “subculture” that is commerce.
In an e-mail Wednesday, Carter said: “B Kyle is a strong leader who is constantly engaged on critical issues. I highly value our candid conversations, especially in areas where we may disagree.”
Finding her voice
Kyle said she’s not shy. She just never had jobs where people asked for her opinion.
A child of “East Side folks,” Brenda Kyle is a 1982 graduate of Woodbury High School (4th in her class). Kyle went on to graduate magna cum laude from the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., in 1986. While in college, she applied for an ROTC scholarship, later earning top cadet status for a tri-school battalion that included St. Benedict, St. John’s University and St. Cloud State University. She served four years of active duty in what was then West Germany, witnessing the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Becoming a stay-at-home mom followed, but divorce, unemployment and homelessness sent Kyle on a path back to Minnesota and the task of building a career from the ground up. Private sector jobs in sales, financial services and precision manufacturing eventually led her to the Port Authority in 2006. She rose to senior vice president of strategic development and led the Port Authority’s development team. She was project manager for Treasure Island Center, the former Macy’s building downtown, and worked on other high-profile projects, including CHS Field.
She was named to lead the Chamber of Commerce in June 2017. Kyle calls her life a series “of lucky choices.”
“You just do what’s in front of you and by the grace of God I made some good decisions, and I’m smart and I work hard,” she said. “And you know success is 50 percent showing up. I showed up. Every day.”
By the way, Brenda became just “B” — what her college friends called her — to “restart my world and manage my social anxiety. After my divorce, it was time for me to declare my own thing,” she said.
The only people who still call her Brenda, she jokes, are spam callers — or her ex.
Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council, said Kyle is “very quiet, but she had a well-thought-out strategy for development projects in St. Paul. The Port Authority is constantly knocking on people’s doors, building relationships. And she took those relationships to the chamber.”
Louis Jambois, former head of the Port Authority, said it wasn’t in Kyle’s nature to put herself “out there” on issues. She didn’t have to. Now she does, he said.
“She knows she has to be the front person and she has no problem getting out in front of people if she needs to,” Jambois said.
Anyone expecting Kyle to become a bombastic, in-your-face business brawler doesn’t know her very well, he said. She’s more likely to foster positive public relationships and save the more choice words for private meetings.
“She’s afraid of nothing, or nobody,” he said of the former Army captain who once managed battalion security in Germany. “She won’t get nose to nose. But she’ll take on whatever task is required at the moment and bring other people along with her.”
Besides pressing on public safety, Kyle said she has a number of other priorities to strengthen the chamber and make it even more valuable to St. Paul’s diverse business community. Building membership and diversifying revenue are at the top of the list. For the first time in years, the chamber in 2018 and 2019 added more new members than the number of members who left, officials said. Sources other than membership dues now make up more than half of the chamber’s more than $2 million in revenue, as the chamber continues new business contracting with outside organizations to provide services and expertise.
Kyle said it’s all about “figuring out how to expand our body of work.”
She also said she wants to find ways for St. Paul to better collaborate with other chambers of commerce that call the Twin Cities region home. There are 32 of them, Kyle said, and there really doesn’t need to be that many doing many of the same things. Chambers of commerce should find areas in which they can share services and hand off those things that another chamber might do better. The key to making that happen? Again, she said, relationships.
And those don’t happen without respect and trust.
“I have to trust that when I give you the baby, you’re going to hold the baby and take care of the baby,” she said. “If we trust one another, we will win. And you have to be able to understand that.”
James Walsh • 612-673-7428