Citys economic development leader takes new post with Minnesota Business Partnership

Mike Christenson, who recently stepped down as the city’s top economic development official, is taking a new job with the Minnesota Business Partnership to focus on improving job placement rates among college students.

His new post starts March 20 at the Loring Park-based organization. The role will build on work he’s done with the city working on expanding job opportunities for people in challenged neighborhoods like Phillips in South Minneapolis.

Christenson points to the success of Minneapolis Promise — an initiative Mayor R.T. Rybak launched in 2003 that helps eliminate barriers for high school students who want to attend college. The program has opened college and career centers in all of the city’s seven high schools, connected students to internships and provided financial assistance for college.  

In the past five years, college enrollment among Minneapolis high school students has increased 38 percent, Christenson said.

“The next great challenge is to improve graduation rates [at college], but also greatly improvement placements,” he said.

Rybak tapped Christenson to head the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) Department in 2003. In that time, he’s built relationships with Minneapolis business leaders and worked on placing people from areas with high unemployment into jobs in  healthcare and construction. “We’ve had good performance in some industries, but it’s spotty and needs to be systematic,” he said.

Chuck Lutz, deputy director of CPED, has been named the interim director of the department, said John Stiles, a spokesman for Rybak.

When asked about his proudest moments working for the city as head of CPED, Christenson pointed to work he’s collaborated on to turn around troubled areas. The Hawthorne EcoVillage in North Minneapolis was one example he highlighted.

“The most you can ever expect from public service is to make a difference that is noticeable to citizens,” he said.

In the spring of 2008, the city got serious about tackling high crime in a four-block area of Hawthorne now home to the EcoVillage. Pam Patrek, a long-time neighborhood resident, was on the verge of moving out of the neighborhood after her home was burglarized twice.

Jeff Skrenes, the housing director for the Hawthorne Neighborhood Council, said 31st & 6th in Hawthorne was “one of the worst if not the worst” intersections in Minneapolis at the time. Most of the homes were blighted and vacant — serving as hangouts for drug dealers and prostitutes.

When Christenson along with a dozen of other city officials met with Patrek and a few other residents, they had a lot of convincing to do to make the case that they could improve the neighborhood. He told Patrek they would “earn her trust.”

Patrek was initially skeptical, but decided to stay in her home.

Not long after that meeting, a dramatic transformation started to take place. Hundreds of arrests were made and 30 properties were demolished. New homes have since gone up along with a tree nursery on a vacant lot. The project was funded in part by a $500,000 grant from Home Depot Foundation. Within 18 months, serious crime had dropped dramatically.

“It was almost a blink of an eye that things started happening,” Patrek said. “Bad things were not bad anymore. The gunshots were gone. The police started arresting people. The prostitution was gone. Houses were gone. Immediately I just saw everything change.”

The faith of homeowners who are willing to endure hardship is crucial to the success of efforts like the EcoVillage, Christenson said.

“Those homeowners were the brave ones who had to endure the risks that come with standing up to crime,” he said. “Those of who are public servants who get to support them — that’s a big deal. When you see that kind of transformation, and you’re part of that, it’s an amazing relationship with those citizens.”

Reach Sarah McKenzie at [email protected]