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The Wall Street Journal Wants to Know What’s up With Downtown Minneapolis

Plus a supermarket landmark, a real estate scam, and changes at The Current in today's Flyover news roundup.

5:06 PM CDT on October 23, 2023

Tony Webster via Flickr

Welcome back to The Flyover, your daily digest of what local media outlets and Twitter-ers are gabbing about.

WSJ Ponders Why Downtown Mpls Blows

Downtowns across the U.S. are turning into ghost towns. This weekend, Konrad Putzier at the Wall Street Journal examined why this is happening and what’s being done to combat it, with Minneapolis front and center as an example. According to cell phone data analyzed by the University of Toronto’s School of Cities, downtown Minneapolis foot traffic dropped 44% from 2019 to June 2023. That puts us in third for decline across the nation, behind St. Louis and Louisville. So how do you draw real, live human beings downtown? One way is to try to get them to live there, and that starts with offering tax breaks to businesses that convert offices into apartment spaces.

The story mentions the Mill City District and the North Loop as successful examples of this, though their glow-ups took decades during an era of low interest rates (and we’re at a high now). Converting downtown is also tricky because property owners are reluctant to sell at a loss, and not all buildings are suitable for conversion (think rooms upon rooms with no windows). “Downtowns are always going to be a centrifugal force,” concludes Mayor Jacob Frey. “What’s going to have to change is how we view it.” But before that view changes, it sure sounds like we’re going to need to put a lot of time and money into renovations.

Kowalski's Turns 40

Full disclosure: I, Jay, worked as a union bagboy at the Kowalski's on Lyndale Avenue when I was 13, though at the time its interior was a holdover from the grimy GJ's. The job was fine. Whew! With that out of the way, I feel like can impartially recap this nice 40-year history of the Twin Cities grocery chain, courtesy of Jared Kaufman at PiPress. In it, CEO Kris Kowalski Christiansen and her daughter, founder/owner Mary Anne Kowalski, detail how company patriarch Jim Kowalski and Mary Anne spun off a Red Owl franchise along St. Paul's Grand Avenue into the first-ever Kowalski's Market (then known as Kowalski’s Red Owl). “All we hoped was to make our mortgage payment on the house,” Mary Anne tells the PiPress.

Eventually, the high-end grocer would expand to a mini empire of 11 locations, with its familial leaders never losing touch with the mom 'n' pop ethos as they compete with Lunds & Byerlys for the fancy supermarket crown. “At the end of the day, it’s the common sense, again, of what tastes good and what are the quality ingredients,” Kris says. “It’s about integrity and freshness and homemade — and butter. We use butter. A lot of butter.” The fun, lighthearted profile does mention UFCW Local 663 workers who recently went on strike at several union Kowalski's shops, though it curiously calls Jim's 2013 death "unexpected"—"horrific" might've been a better descriptor, but it's understandable why details were omitted. In any case: Happy birthday Kowalski's. You can revisit our local grocery chain pricing battle royale here.

Digging Into Contracts for Deed

Last November, ProPublica’s Jessica Lussenhop and Sahan Journal's Joey Peters published a joint investigation into “contract-for-deed” loans, which let families—specifically East African Muslim families—move from cramped apartments into beautiful suburban homes... with a catch. The loans were purported to be "interest free," as many members of the community avoid paying or profiting from interest and therefore can't get a mortgage. But buyers could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars—everything, really—if they defaulted, and many who spoke to ProPublica said they signed contracts they didn't understand.

Now, Lussenhop and Peters report, the Minnesota Attorney General has opened an investigation into contract-for-deed lending. The investigation follows a July Senate subcommittee hearing on contract-for-deed loans convened by Senator Tina Smith in which she and other senators called for further consumer protections. “Our office is concerned with the potential for abusive lending tactics that extract wealth from already impoverished communities,” Mark Iris, an assistant attorney general in the office’s civil rights division, said in a statement. We'll add the obligatory counterpoint here: Home sellers and investors who use contracts for deed say they can be a necessary alternative route to homeownership, and they deny any abusive practices.

Wanna Be Music Director of The Current?

As Jay discussed in his piece on MPR last year, there’s been plenty of turnover at 89.3 The Current in recent years. Today, another longtime Current on-air personality took her leave: music director Jade Tittle. Tittle, who started working overnights more than 15 years ago, began hosting middays in 2015, and took the music director position in 2021, a year after the previous director, David Safar, was promoted to station manager. “It was my childhood dream to be able to just talk about music with people all day and get paid to do it,” Tittle said in her farewell announcement. “The thing about dreams is that they change as you grow and I’m ready to move on to my next dream.” No word yet on who the station might be considering for a replacement. 

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