The recent controversy over whether to maintain subsidies and forgive debt for the Midtown Global Market raises issues Twin Citians should think about: most specifically, what we subsidize and why.
There is no denying that we are fond of subsidy. We subsidize sports stadia, parking ramps, the arts, retail developments, and markets. We subsidize too many things because our intentions are good and we aren’t sure the marketplace will respond to good ideas that don’t offer the kind of return that investors and banks get behind.
One of those things was the Midtown Global Market (MGM). It was to be, said creators, an urban market along the lines of Seattle’s Pike Place Market and Philly’s Reading Terminal Market, an extrapolation the credulous local press bought with aplomb.
But Pike Place is the hub of tourist Seattle, while Reading is at the city’s downtown nexus. Neither lacks for traffic or customers. Chicago at Lake bears little resemblance to those two places, and I found the comparisons not all that different from the hype that sold us Riverplace.
Lurking beneath the surface was what seemed like a more salient rationale—creating an inner-city destination to celebrate the Twin Cities’ ethnic diversity. The market’s initial lineup of vendors was rooted in an ethnic quota system. Like so many Minneapolis initiatives, it was better positioned to uplift and empower immigrant vendors than to break even or attract broad interest.
Vendors and eateries came and went, and customer counts were limited after you subtracted lunch business from the adjacent Allina Health headquarters. Yet there were successes, most notably Michelle Gayer’s superb Salty Tart Bakery, which became an enduring destination business.
In December, Minneapolis forgave $1.5 million in debt and continued free parking for another year as part of a raft of subsidy initiatives passed at the end of the city council and mayoral terms. There were objections, but not many. Midtown Global Market lives on and its backers insist the trend is positive. We will see.
The lesson is that when we subsidize business ventures whose roots are more in good intentions than an ability to draw lots of customers and become self-sustaining (Block E), we need to think again. Lacking high traffic, MGM needed to become a destination venue. Organizers could have done that by inviting the area’s premier cheese makers, brewers, bakers, chefs, butchers, and food artisans to create a satellite home there.
Then, as the local-foods scene burgeoned, and the food truck and craft-everything movements hit their stride, MGM might not have rivaled Pike Place or Reading, but it would have had consistent buzz. Much of the skepticism about its gritty locale and the appeal of its offerings would have been moot.
Our tax dollars were leveraged earnestly, but not wisely. There is nothing wrong with considering social good in subsidized initiatives, but the best way to help the most people is to create something desirable and sustainable—the way businesses are supposed to think.
The MGM that its founders promised did not come to pass—for all the inevitable and right reasons.
Adam Platt is the executive editor of Twin Cities Business Magazine and formerly held the same post at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. City Centered is his monthly column in Mpls.St.Paul Magazine that examines the cultural climate of the Twin Cities.