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On the Shoulders of Giants

None of us works alone, and none of us is the first person ever to think and act to rejuvenate a riverfront. Those of us fortunate to work on the future of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis truly stand “on the shoulders of giants.”

We lost one of those giants last month, when Betsy Doermann, former secretary of the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board and staff at the Minnesota Historical Society, died at 79.

The Star Tribune notice that appeared yesterday is eloquent in its summation of Betsy’s pivotal leadership role in working to turn the Central Riverfront in Minneapolis from an obsolete industrial and transportation landscape, blighted and neglected, to the center of the city, capturing over $2 billion in public and private investment over a 20 year period. It is vital that those of us working today and training the next generation of leaders recognize that about 25-30% of that funding was public money, a “priming the pump” investment that led to a 3:1 return.

Ann Calvert, a City of Minneapolis staff member who worked with Betsy during this transformative period, said it well: “She was smart enough to realize there was important stuff that happened beforehand, and some of the stuff we’ve done to change the riverfront is its own history,” Calvert said. “She was wise enough to see that some of those connections are what make things magical and powerful.”

Connections, magic, power: all concepts that speak to the Mississippi River at St. Anthony Falls. I would add one more: imagination. For me, the linchpin project in the revitalization of the riverfront was the opening of the Stone Arch Bridge as a bike-pedestrian route in 1994. This feat of adaptive re-use (to use the historic preservation phrase) allowed private sector investors in the riverfront to imagine how people would be attracted to the recreational amenities that had, until then, been latent possibilities. And it took a tremendous feat of imagination, along with dogged, persistent, political work, to bring the parties together to ensure the transformation of the Stone Arch Bridge was successful. That story is bigger than what can be told here, and when it does appear, Betsy Doermann’s name will be central.

It is fitting, I think, that yesterday also marked the announcement that the TLS/KVA team has been chosen to help the city take the next step in its riverfront revitalization. More than any of the other design teams, TLS/KVA studied the Minneapolis riverfront, learned from what has been done in the past, and proposed the next generation of design, planning, and development as a continuation and expansion from those successes.

Many people will say “we don’t have the money” or “this isn’t the right time,” or “let the private sector do it, we have too much government” Many others will, and have, carped about any number of other facets of the next generation of riverfront planning, “why are we planning parks when we need jobs,” or “this is just for the rich,” or “local guys could have done this.” Betsy’s example reminds us that an inclusive, shared, common vision, combined withperseverance,is fundamental for a city to grow and prosper.

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One Comment

  1. David TinjumFebruary 15, 2011 at 7:18 am

    It’s a shame I wasn’t aware of Betsy and her contributions until reading her obituary. If not for her efforts our neighborhood, the Mill District, would likely still be a collection of abandoned buildings and empty parking lots.
    I share your hope that the redevelopment of our riverfront will be veiwed from an investment and quality of life perspective, rather than getting caught up in the politics of “tax and spend”.

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