After 12 years in office, outgoing Mayor Chris Coleman looks back at a changed St. Paul

SAINT PAUL — CHS Field. The Palace Theatre. Minnesota United’s soccer stadium. The Penfield apartments. An Ordway expansion. The Green Line light rail.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s 12 years at the political helm of his hometown have left visible changes on the city’s landscape. As his third and final term ends, he is transitioning to a new full-time job: running for governor.

On a recent morning, he was still juggling his responsibilities as the city’s longest-serving leader since 1990. Coleman, 56, attended a ribbon cutting at Como Park Senior High School and gave a farewell speech to his departing human resources director. Then he returned to his office in City Hall, where the impending change was clear.

More than a decade’s worth of mayoral detritus littered his tables and desk as he cleaned up the space for Mayor-elect Melvin Carter, who will take office Tuesday. Photos, gifts and documents scattered around the room captured moments of joy and tragedy during Coleman’s years in office.

He met President Barack Obama and Mick Jagger and served as president of the National League of Cities. He watched St. Paul families lose their homes during the Great Recession. He flew an F-16 fighter jet. He faced criticism about police tactics after protests and mass arrests during the 2008 Republican National Convention. He mourned after a landslide at Lilydale Regional Park, next to his home, killed two children on a 2013 field trip.

“That hit me as a parent as much as anything,” Coleman said, recalling when he first heard about the accident. “I didn’t know if that was my son or his buddies, and that was just really hard.”

That day is balanced by happier memories. The opening of the light rail that drew the Twin Cities together and fostered development along University Avenue. The celebration of the St. Paul Saints’ new home in Lowertown.

Such openings have factored into a hard-to-measure quality that Coleman often mentions in speeches as his proudest achievement in office: “vitality.”

St. Paul has become livelier. It is dotted with popular restaurants, breweries and music and theater venues. The population is more diverse and topped 300,000 for the first time since the 1970s. But the economic development has not happened evenly across the city. More work is needed to make neighborhoods like the East Side and North End safer and more vibrant, he said.

Some have also found fault with the city’s spending on splashy projects, and a perception that City Hall ignores dissenting voices led to the formation of a group devoted to greater transparency and accountability in St. Paul.

“There is not a point in time where you say, ‘Oh, our job is done. Everything is great,’ ” Coleman said. “There’s always going to be those challenges. I don’t worry that my successor is not going to have enough to do.”

Developing ‘vitality’

Coleman has spent tens of millions of public dollars on development projects, like buying the Penfield and turning it into an upscale apartment complex. The Penfield paid off, netting the city $8.7 million and bringing more residents downtown.

City Council President Russ Stark initially voted against the Penfield plan. But he said that, like many other projects Coleman took on, it worked out.

“The city was a much sleepier place 12 years ago,” he said.

Developer Jim Stolpestad said Coleman should have focused earlier on bringing and keeping employers in downtown. But he anticipates Coleman — along with former Mayor George Latimer, one of Coleman’s mentors — will be remembered as a “top development mayor.”

“A different mayor would not have pulled off light rail, would not have pulled off CHS Field,” Stolpestad said. “He’s just a guy who pursues things he wants to pursue and doesn’t let anything stand in the way.”

For Coleman’s farewell party, Stolpestad tallied up private investments in St. Paul over the past 12 years: about $3 billion, he said.

Coleman’s critics, including mayoral hopeful Tom Goldstein, who ran for the open seat this year, have said the public dollars Coleman put toward stadium and theater projects would have been better spent on keepingproperty taxes low and covering basic city services, like recreation centers, libraries and streets.

During the recession, which took a toll on the city’s budget, Coleman closed or stopped city operations at 17 recreation centers. However, he has expanded other centers, remodeled several libraries and overhauled the city’s worst streets with his “Terrible 20” campaign.

Coleman also has faced criticism from people who felt he ignored their concerns about big projects, including the construction of the Green Line and the creation of a plan to guide development at the former Ford assembly plant site, said Linda Winsor with the open government advocacy group St. Paul STRONG.

“A good leader learns a lot from listening to all residents,” she said. “That has been missing for a while at City Hall.”

But Chris Rider, Coleman’s scheduler for the past 12 years, said he had a “super open door policy” with residents. And Coleman took a symbolic step when he took the job: He unlocked the mayor’s office door.

Coleman’s successor promised last week to continue the policy, as well as reaching out to people in their communities — something the Coleman administration has also done.

“Unlocking that door was a powerful symbol,” Carter said. “Yes, we’ll keep that door unlocked. Ultimately, it has to go a lot further than an open door.”

Unfinished work

When Coleman’s Policy Director Nancy Homans moved into her office 12 years ago, she made a list of priorities in red at the top of her dry-erase board under Coleman’s initials, “CBC.”

They’ve taken numerous steps toward the first item: environmental sustainability. This week the city signed an international charter to combat climate change in response to President Donald Trump’s decision to drop out of the Paris climate accord. St. Paul is also developing a climate action plan, Homans added, though more community input is needed.

Diversity at City Hall has become increasingly important since she first wrote that goal down, said Homans. As of January, nearly 23 percent of city staff are people of color. That’s more than 6 percentage points higher than five years ago, but it still falls short of mirroring the 46 percent of St. Paul residents who are people of color.

The last three items on Homan’s board are “ending poverty,” “successful kids” and “closing the gap.” They are the same things Carter has spent the past year discussing on the campaign trail.

Coleman recently glanced around his half-packed office and picked up a file containing his inaugural address. As he flipped through it, he noted that despite his staff’s many efforts to help families and kids, including after-school and summer programs and internships for students, additional work is needed on education.

If he had more time as mayor, he knows what else he would tackle: early childhood literacy, social-emotional support for students and working with parents and children to address intergenerational poverty.

“To me, that’s as important as the bricks and mortar stuff,” Coleman said. “You can cut ribbons on a stadium or a light rail line, but are we preparing the future workforce? Are we preparing all of our kids to be successful? Are we getting them on the right paths to a better future? Those are all things we continue to struggle with.”

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