Categorized | IN OUR COMMUNITY

Former Commissioner McLaughlin reflects on public service

Posted on 28 January 2019 by calvin

‘Patron Saint of Lost Causes’

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two of a two-part series. The first section ran in the January 2019 edition of the Messenger and can be found online here.

If there’s one thing that defines Peter McLaughlin’s career as a public servant, it may be his attitude towards what others consider to be lost causes.
“I’m sort of the Patron Saint of Lost Causes,” admitted McLaughlin.

There’s something about certain projects that kept him searching for solutions, even over decades, observed McLaughlin, who was elected as District 4 Hennepin County Commissioner first in 1990 and left office in December 2018.

Photo right: In an effort to make it more cost effective to plant trees in the county, former District 4 Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin supported adding a tree nursery specifically focused on replacing trees lost to Emerald Ash Borer. Starting 20 years ago, the county has planted over 5,000 trees during Arbor Day celebrations. In addition to these plantings, a small food forest was planted in Adams Triangle in Longfellow, and 163 trees were planted along Hiawatha Ave in 2015 and 2016. (Photo submitted)

Take the Fort Snelling Upper Post, a group of 27 historic buildings that were falling apart. There wasn’t a fund of money available to pay for fixing the buildings nor anyone interested in using them. But McLaughlin believed they should be saved and so he kept talking about it with others. When the site was listed as one of the top endangered historic sites in the United States, he realized there might be a source of workers he could tap into.

Even better, the county was already paying for the Sentence-To-Service crews so it wouldn’t cost additional money.

When one of the buildings collapsed, others also started shuffling things around, working hard to find funds to pay for building materials to stabilize the buildings.

A group began meeting to talk about the future of the site, and McLaughlin chaired the Fort Snelling Upper Post Task Force. They put together a land use plan and waited for the right opportunity.

It came in 2018 when the Plymouth-based Dominium, no stranger to historical renovation projects, and the Department of Natural Resources struck a deal to redevelop the site into 176 units of affordable housing. Soon veterans and families will be breathing new life into the 47-acre site that’s the last unincorporated area of Hennepin County.

Systematic change for libraries
Things shifted for McLaughlin 12 years ago. His daughter was born, and he battled prostate cancer. “I decided at that point to work on bigger projects,” he said.

McLaughlin added, “You can do individual projects, but you have to turn them into something bigger, into systematic change.”
Around the same time Minneapolis started closing libraries—an option they hadn’t done even during the Great Depression, McLaughlin pointed out. And they planned to close more. Two of the three closed libraries were in McLaughlin’s district, Roosevelt and Southeast.

McLaughlin learned about the issues while attending a spaghetti dinner in the basement of a Lutheran church in his district. He didn’t hesitate about taking this project on. He supports walkable, bikeable cities, and to have that one needs destinations such as libraries. “They are places that anchor neighborhoods,” observed McLaughlin.

Photo left: Roosevelt Library was shuttered by the Minneapolis Public Library board but was then reopened after a Library fund was created to invest in libraries across the county. Former District 4 Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin had supported the merger of the Minneapolis and Hennepin County library systems that made these renovations and expanded hours happen. (Photo submitted)

There had been discussions about merging the Minneapolis Library and the Hennepin County Library systems for years, but it had never progressed. McLaughlin believed the time had come, and he worked to make the merger happen within a few months.

There were issues, such as the suburban libraries worried their money was going into a declining system, and the city libraries worried their referendum money would be used outside Minneapolis. But a deal was struck, and the merger became official on Jan. 1, 2008.

“Libraries are one of the great democratic services we provide,” stated McLaughlin. “It needed to be solid.”

Since the merger, all the closed libraries have been re-opened, nearly every library in the system has been renovated (the last project just began), and hours added. For the first time since the Kennedy administration, Central Library downtown is open seven days a week.

Fight for light rail
Neighbors stopped the freeway from going in during the 1960s, but then nothing happened along the giant swatch of right-of-way along Hiawatha Ave. for years. It took until 1985 to reach a deal about what the road would look like, and until the early 1990s to finish the project. Meanwhile, discussions had gone back and forth for years about light rail lines and which one should be the first.

“I took on the fight for rail transit,” McLaughlin said. He knew one of his biggest battles was to reach an agreement between Hennepin and Ramsey counties and keep that in place until federal and state funding was appropriated and work could begin. It was agreed that because right-of-way was available along Hiawatha, and the Environment Impact Statement already done (because of the road work), that it would be the pilot project.

Governor Carlson signed off on a $40 million appropriation, and then Governor Ventura (who had attended Roosevelt High School) made the line a priority. A bonding bill was passed in 1999 during Ventura’s first year in office that included the last $60 million needed from the state.

“I always told people, we put all our chips on red 26 and spun the wheel,” said McLaughlin.

Once the Blue Line was operating (2004), the Green Line followed in 2014, connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul along University Ave. The Southwest extension of the Green Line is next. When McLaughlin attended the Green Line groundbreaking on Nov. 30, 2018, he brought the same shovel he used at the Blue Line groundbreaking.

Photo right: Former District 4 Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin speaks during the South Minneapolis Hub opening along Lake St. and Hiawatha Ave. The South Minneapolis Hub represents a move to decentralize human services from downtown to make it easier for people to get county social services at a site that’s more accessible. (Photo submitted)

McLaughlin’s focus on “transit ways” has also included bus lines (such as the Orange line that will be going down 35W), and he’s had a whiteboard in his office for decades that shows a transit map of the region.

“Why do I care so much about this? Transit reinforces the center as the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul,” McLaughlin explained. It goes back to the lessons he learned in Trenton, N.J. and from Sears, and the exodus of people from the city that happened across the nation. How do you keep people in the city? If you’re McLaughlin, you give them something to stay for.

“It’s all part of how do we attract people to the city and make a more prosperous life?” McLaughlin said.

Development has come
Some of the light rail supporters, including McLaughlin, promised that there would be development along the lines. Every year for many years, a Star Tribune reporter would call him to ask when development was going to happen.

After a recession and years of planning, in 2015 McLaughlin helped broker a deal for the county to anchor a large development at Hiawatha Ave. and Lake St., and things began to snowball.

In addition to the new development on the southwest side of Lake and Hiawatha, there is a new building on the north side, and another multi-story apartment building a few blocks south. Several buildings are planned around the 38th St. Station, and Longfellow Stations was built there on the southeast side a few years ago. A major development is in the works at 46th St., and five more are in progress.

McLaughlin tries to work within existing plans to make other things happen.

Some have accused him of being too patient. “It takes a long time to work these puzzles out,” he observed.

Hennepin County had already decided to decentralize its services and spread out buildings to be more convenient the communities it serves. It needed a hub somewhere in south Minneapolis, so McLaughlin pitched the idea of putting a service center at Hiawatha and Lake. It became part of a development that will add more than 500 housing units and a permanent space for the Midtown Farmers’ Market. The first housing unit opened on Dec. 1, 2018. Next year, a site that wasn’t generating any tax revenue while owned entirely by Minneapolis Schools will generate $300,000 in property taxes, and that’s just a start.

“You can’t do all the things you want to do with new money,” said McLaughlin. “You’ve got to do it with money you were going to spend anyway. You have to be intentional about it.”

Battling crime and building a Greenway
The Midtown Greenway is an iconic part of south Minneapolis now, but when McLaughlin started his career it was a trench where folks threw their old mattresses and trash. The city had just been dubbed “Murderopolis” by the New York Times, and south Minneapolis was the epicenter of the crime issues facing the city.

“I used to say if you’re going to go down to the Greenway to do an inspection, you need to be sure to get your tetanus shot up to date,” said McLaughlin.

He got involved with the Midtown Community Works Partnership, and they worked to convince first Honeywell and then Wells Fargo when they took over the Honeywell facility at 600 S. 4th St. to support the Greenway project.

Construction on the line began in 2000 and the final phase was done in 2007. Organizers are now considering an extension across a rail bridge to St. Paul.

“We said there would be development along the trench, and people laughed at us 20 years ago,” recalled McLaughlin. “Success will beget more success—and that’s what happened.”

The line has become one of the busiest bikeways in Minnesota and recognized as the best urban bike trail in the nation. Plus, new housing and retail have gone in along the trail.

The trail was one of several prongs of an approach focused on building up the neighborhood and reducing crime.

“You’re not going to solve crime without a comprehensive approach,” observed McLaughlin, or solve racism. For him, one part always includes adding jobs, and so he worked to build up what was already existing in the neighborhood, including Wells Fargo and Abbott hospital through work with the Phillips Partnership. They supported Abbot’s heart hospital expansion, keeping it in the city versus out in the suburbs.

They offered funds to rehabilitate old homes and increase the number of owner-occupied houses, supported by the Project for Pride in Living (PPL) Selvaggio Fund.

The group worked to create the Pathways Program to provided training at the Minneapolis College for jobs at Abbott, as well as jobs within the county itself.

McLaughlin once found himself in the elevator with three women who were part of the Pathways program. As they got out, one told him, “This job changed my life.”

“That’s why I do this work,” remarked McLaughlin.

Entrepreneurial policymaker
McLaughlin has approached policymaking by trying to fix community problems, even when there was no clear role for Hennepin County in the solution, pointed out his principal aide Brian Shekelton.

“Life’s problems aren’t categorized by a series of neat silos, and he believes that silos shouldn’t define the way to fix problems.

“Before Commissioner McLaughlin took office Hennepin County wasn’t helping to build train lines, it wasn’t helping to build permanent homes for farmers markets. It wasn’t leading a partnership to build Greenways (Midtown was a community development project, not just a transportation/recreation project). It wasn’t investing in Minneapolis parks or Minneapolis libraries. It wasn’t creating train stations like Target Field Station, and it didn’t have a tree nursery to replenish the lost Ash trees,” Shekelton

Shekelton summed up, “I’ve always thought that of Peter McLaughlin as an entrepreneurial policymaker, and I think that’s why he has been able to achieve so many goals.”

What’s next?
So, what’s next for the man who left office in December after 28 years?

He’s not sure.

“I’ve devoted my entire adult life to community work,” he said.

He doesn’t think he’s done yet.

“I’m still a believer that government can play a positive role in changing people’s lives,” remarked McLaughlin.

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