Why Can’t We Have a “Three Strikes” Policy for Public Financing?

For residents of Minneapolis, few local policy issues can stir debate like the future of downtown’s Block E. The neighborhood long catered to a not-so-family-friendly clientèle, but it wasn’t until paranoia over punk rock and pornography swept the nation in the 1980s that the city of Minneapolis decided to clean house. This culminated in a 1987 city council decision to condemn the entire block and turn it into one giant open-air parking lot. Nearly overnight, Block E went from seedy business district to full-blown urban wasteland. The neighborhood’s astronomically high crime rates in no doubt helped a witty New York Times reporter famously dub the city “Murderapolis” in 1995.

Over the past few decades, hilarious crime-fighting and urban development programs have ensued, which include blasting Italian opera music over large speakers on the street corners to annoy dope-slinging gang members and building a new mall when the entire downtown was watching its retail consumer base dry up. Thankfully, Minneapolitans now have something to look forward to: the opening of Target Field, the future home of the Minnesota Twins. More than 75 percent of funds required for the $500+ million project come in the form of public subsidies, but at least Minnesotans will finally be able to enjoy the MLB season outdoors again–even though construction of the public-funded, indoor Metrodome was supported by the Twins in part because the owners said it was too cold outside for much of the year.

On December 31, 2009, the primary developer of the Block E retail boondoggle pulled out of the project and transferred ownership to a scandal-ridden union insurance fund. The Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial page, which typically goes into a scripted fit of cheerleading whenever the phrase “public-private partnership” appears in a city press release, is optimistic (although, they’re never optimistic about easing red tape and restrictive land-use policies). They quote a city apparatchik saying,

“Target Field presents a huge opportunity,” said Mike Christenson, Minneapolis’ director of Community Planning and Economic Development. “We have to give fans a reason to make multiple stops when they come downtown to a ballgame — to stay in hotels, to eat, drink, shop and walk around. This is our chance to reintroduce ourselves to the rest of the state.”

Of course, the same things were said when the city was busy “developing” the area surrounding the Metrodome. The Downtown East neighborhood only recently began seeing the economic benefits promised nearly three decades earlier, and much of that came at the height of the real estate boom in the form of trendy condo conversions. But don’t worry, Downtown East residents and business owners. You have not been forgotten. A plan is in the works to demolish the 27-year-old Metrodome in order to build a new Vikings stadium. Naturally, this project will go perfectly, and you’ll all get rich! And a pony.