A community-centered, more inclusive approach to city government
In his “State of Our City” address last month, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter set new heights for the capitol city as he covered his plans for housing assistance, infrastructure, public safety and more. This is what the mayor referred to as “swinging for the fences” as he embarks on bringing a renewed charge to inspire residents and local leaders alike to help the city thrive.
In his interview with the MSR, Mayor Carter said that he looks to consult with his constituents on many of his biggest decisions as mayor.
“When it comes to doing big things, we always find groups of people to do it with,” he said. “We take a lot of pride in reshaping what municipal government looks like, in reshaping the type of resources and supports that people can look to City Hall to receive. But we never feel alone because we’re doing it with community members kind of every step along the way.”
Carter shared that in his many meetings with residents and business owners, the conversation tends to veer towards one question—why St. Paul? In response, the St. Paul community shared their aspirations for their business or in raising a family, says Carter.
As mayor, those conversations for Carter have translated into his effort to create systems to support St. Paul residents, such as the guaranteed income for families, which was launched in 2020. Efforts to provide home-buying assistance and funding opportunities for businesses owned by people of color and women have also been at the forefront of the mayor’s plans for invigorating the city and its residents. He says that there has long been a perception that the status quo is good enough and that opportunities may have to be sought elsewhere. But he challenged people to see things differently.
Undoing what’s been done
“I feel like we’ve all inherited what I think of as a broken model in city-building that tells us it’s okay to build roads right over people’s houses. It’s okay to just lock up everybody you can find cause that’s how we keep our streets safe. If we want to build the economic future of a city, the way you do that is go find folks outside of our community to spend money on to try to get them to come here,” he said.
In his address, the mayor pointed to the city’s downtown rebound as businesses have begun to return post-pandemic. Carter hopes to take his revitalization further and find ways to connect the region’s resources for a more integrated environment for business growth.
“We’re really fortunate to have all the universities that we have and then on top of that all the Fortune 500 company headquarters. They create a really intriguing ecosystem of innovation that happens here,” he said.
During his first year in office, the mayor created the Full Stack initiative to highlight the culture of innovation in St. Paul and the greater metro area. He also hopes to fix the disconnect that communities of color and women experience when it comes to securing seed funding to help their businesses take off.
Business growth is a significant part of the mayor’s plans to incentivize financial growth in St. Paul, and his aims for development are also a part of his vision for the city.
The former site of the Ford assembly plant is now the location of a future development that spans 122 acres of mixed-use commercial and residential units, and repurpose a large portion of the city’s land along the Mississippi. He is also keenly aware of the financial needs of many St. Paul residents.
The Office of Financial Empowerment is the city’s way of getting into the business of helping people figure out how to make their money work for them, as the mayor described it. This comes in the form of helping residents file tax returns, manage college savings accounts for their children, and manage the guaranteed incomes program. It also runs the local fund program which financially empowers individuals to own property.
“It’s a fund intended to help facilitate low-income workers pooling their money and buying the business where they work. It’s low-income tenants pooling their money and buying their apartment building,” he said. “These are all parts of our strategy to build a more participatory, more inclusive economy here in St. Paul.”
As the Mayor looks to make investments in affordable housing options and business support programs, his State of Our City address also covered his investment in youth.
A son of St. Paul
“My parents had the foresight to just surround us with institutions and adults and places and people who were determined to see us succeed whether we wanted to or not,” he joked.
As the son of a police officer and a schoolteacher, Carter described his childhood as having a certain dichotomy as a Black child growing up in St. Paul. While he saw how certain institutions could hinder his development and opportunities, he also witnessed how they could benefit him.
“That level of interconnectedness that I experienced as a young person growing up in this city was really important to me. It is part of why strengthening that fabric of community is critical to me, ” he said.
Growing up, Carter frequented the Martin Luther King Recreation Center where he would take piano lessons, play basketball, and roller skate with friends among other activities. This experience motivated him to remove the participation fee at the city’s rec centers to allow families to take advantage of the resources and remove any barriers that might affect youth engagement. His office also eliminated late fines in the city’s library system, which led to double-digit increases in library attendance.
“It feels to me like we’re really proving this notion that when we bet on people, people pay us a dividend,” he said.
Throughout his time in office, Carter has sought buy-in from the public. This fall he hopes to make that literal in seeking funding to fix the city’s potholes.
In his recent address, the mayor shared that in just the first two months of 2023, the city received 250 claims related to pothole damage to vehicles. Aware of how notorious the potholes have become, the mayor has proposed changes to improve St. Paul roads.
“All my life we’ve been complaining about potholes. We’ve been complaining about the streets and all my life we’ve known that we can do better in St.Paul,” Carter said.
Potholes and public safety
The mayor proposed a one-cent sales tax, that excludes food, clothing, prescription drugs, and rent to pay for the roads. He projected that the city would need to spend a billion dollars over the next 20 years, regardless of the sales tax. Instead of using property taxes on roads and parks, the mayor intends for visitors and workers who travel to the city and enjoy its resources to pay for these changes.
“I think it’s a no-brainer. But again, like I always say, it’s too big a decision for me to just sit in this office and make by myself. That is why the goal is to ask city residents, what do you think,” he added. “We’re asking the legislature permission to do this right now.”
One of Carter’s most difficult challenges is the increasing levels of violence in the city. He pointed to the number of guns now on the street and the need to support victims of gun violence. Carter supported the city council ordinance that would work to prevent unsecured guns from “falling into the wrong hands.” Mayor Carter’s father, Melvin Carter Jr., lost his gun in 2019, and after it was recovered it was determined to have been connected to four shootings. The council is set to vote on this ordinance on May 17, with the elder Carter’s story as an example of what can happen without proper storage of firearms.
Mayor Carter’s vision of public safety incorporates his Office of Neighborhood Safety, which works to fill in the gaps when emergency response resources aren’t able to connect with individuals.
“One of the things we do with our office and neighborhood safety right now is when we have a shooting, as the ambulance races to the hospital and the police race to find the shooter, our office of Neighborhood Safety has folks who race to the hospital to talk to that family, the survivor, and the victim and say, what support resources do you need,” he continued.
In his address, Carter says he also plans to double the recruitment for the police academy and bring on more EMS workers, as the city’s been able to decrease their medical emergency response times by a minute, by creating a more efficient dispatch system to route 911 calls to appropriate personnel and situations.
The city’s Community Alternative Response Emergency Services (CARES) team responds to those in crisis, while those experiencing homelessness are helped by the Unsheltered Response team. While the mayor sees these programs as a success, he hopes to put more resources into preventative measures.
“We put an enormous amount of money into responding to emergencies. And we historically haven’t put that much money into preventing emergencies in the first place, or in reducing or breaking those cycles,” he said. That is something he hopes to remedy.
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