Rybak Q&A part 2: Food trucks, mayoral candidates, utilities

Mayor R.T. Rybak sat down with the Journals on Tuesday to talk about several city issues. This is part 2 of that interview, in which the third-term mayor discusses municipal energy, mayoral candidates, food trucks and Peavey Plaza.

For part 1, click here.

Where do you stand right now on Cam Gordon’s resolutions? Do you support those resolutions?

I believe we have municipal consent for a reason, because the use of the public right away for utilities gives the public rights. Before this all began, getting a stronger franchise agreement was one of the key goals on our agenda … This is a really good time for a city filled with people with incredibly green values to be pushing out partners in utilities even further to do even more. That’s a good thing. Rushing a municpalization discussion onto this election ballot before the community and the mayor even understand the implications seems to me to be pretty abrupt. I am working with the Council as we go through all of this, but my goal would be to get a much more aggressive franchise agreement with a utility that has in some cases been our partner and in some cases has maybe not performed as aggressively as we want.

You may remember that one of the first things I did when I came in was go to Xcel and say, we have sky-high asthma rates in North and Northeast Minneapolis and there are many implications of a coal plant. I could either be your best partner or your worst enemy, but I am going to make sure that thing is converted to gas. In that case, they chose to be a phenomenal partner, and our advocacy together converted not only Riverside, but High Bridge in St. Paul and the one in Stillwater. So that’s a good example of using the city’s relationship in drawing firm lines and getting a very green outcome. I would like to see Xcel push even further and I have spoked with the CEO and member of the board about our desire to have this franchise agreement be a real breakthrough document that hopefully puts us both on a great course. So we’re in discussions with them about that. 

Do you have veto power over those resolutions and would you veto it if the council passes it?

At this point I am talking with council members and hope to be a partner with them and not have a big showdown over this. I don’t expect there will be.

Does that mean it’s not looking like there’s enough support on the Council to pass this?

That’s a very good question for you to ask and I’m picking my words carefully. I think it’s … I’m staying in close contact with the council members and think there’s been some really good work to get us in a better position to get a better franchise agreement.

Whether they pass or not, do you think Cam Gordon’s resolutions have been successful in getting people to the table?

I think we’re in a very healthy conversation in this city as long as we don’t abruptly come to a simplistic question that would create implications we don’t understand. It is great for this community to be talking about the franchise agreement. It was one of the issues I wanted to address before I got out of here, as you saw on the whiteboard (in his office). It’s also been, I believe, very helpful to have citizens out there saying they want more, because they should and that has put wind in our sails.

Telescoping all of that desire to get a franchise agreement into a still very complicated solution of muncipalization is probably not the best outcome at this point, but I think the conversation is pretty healthy.

Target Center. It’s been a year and five months now since you got authority to use some of the sales tax money to do a project. I’ve heard nothing now for months. What’s going on? (note: actually, it’s been 15 months)

We continue to negotiate, and in fact, I just had a conversation about it an hour ago and have had discussions throughout the week.

Conversations with who?

Well, with both the parties we’re negotiating with and our internal team.

We made what I think was a very smart decision early on, saying that as much as we wanted to get this done, we wanted to get this done right. Had we drawn a line and said we need to have this done in a couple months, we might not have gotten the tough and fair agreement the city deserves. So we’re negotiating tough. So are they. It’s a friendly negotiation, but it’s tough, and that’s exactly the way it should be and we’ll get it done on our clock. And I say that specifically because that’s how we’ll get the best outcome.

When you say “on our clock,” does that mean by the time you leave office (in January)?

That’s certainly my hope. If for some reason it doesn’t get done by then, I would be disappointed. I am confident we’ll have this done by the time I leave office. But I also believe it was a very smart decision by our internal team not to put a time clock on this, because we work as hard as we can, but the most important thing is that we get it done right. And we will. I am very confident of this, and we’re really, frankly, discussing very small elements within all of it and I am confident we’re on the right track.

Originally it was, I think, a $150 million total renovation. Has that been scaled down now?

I think originally we looked at $150 million, but we got the costs we really honed in on those costs. It was originally a $135 million renovation, and part of what we wanted to do throughout the whole thing was make really tough decisions. So I think we’re in the right position. It will be less than that, but that will be primarily because we asked a lot of tough questions about what we have to do and we do not have to do. So I think it will be coming in at less than the $135 million, but that’s primarily because both sides have done their work and gotten a better deal for the taxpayers.

The mayor’s race is starting to heat up, and I have to say I am a little surprised that you haven’t endorsed yet and I am a little bit surprised that —  I thought you would endorse Betsy Hodges, just knowing how close you’ve been with her on Council. What’s holding it up? Are you going to make an endorsement?

I haven’t decided whether I am going to make an announcement. My goal is to make sure the city is run well after I leave here. That may mean supporting one candidate, it may mean not. I’ve been a partner with Betsy Hodges and Don Samuels both. So both of them I’ve been extremely close to, and Don and (his wife) Sondra are two people my wife and I admire more than probably anyone else in the city of Minneapolis. I’ve worked with Mark Andrew off and on for 20 years. I have a lot of respect for Jackie Cherryhomes. There are a lot of good people in this race. I think my goal is to continue to meet with any of the candidates who want to talk with me, be really honest with them, give them advice on what to do to make them better. I don’t think an endorsement is necessarily the only way to have an impact in seeing the city run well with the things that I think are important.

So I think the question is out, but there was never any assumption that I was going to go to one candidate or not. I am about to deliver a budget that is dramatically better because of the work of Betsy Hodges. We’re dealing with public safety and many other things that are dramatically better because of my partnership with Council Member Samuels.

Your staff is sort of divided. They’re supporting different candidates. Has that caused any contention in the office? 

I’ve always had a philosophy that’s different than a lot of other leaders, which is that I ask people to work really hard for me, and then allow them to make their own decision. So, in some political offices, the elected officials really ask, and in some cases demand, that people follow where they do. I don’t. So my staff is split between three different candidates, and some are uncommitted. And that’s fine. My chief of staff, Jenn O’Rourke and I, we’re both neutral on this. We brought everyone together and said, let’s lay this honestly on the table, let’s work together on making sure we got our work done and what we’re doing outside of this office isn’t having a negative impact. We just have that ongoing discussion. It’s a very healthy conversation have in here and we’ll just steer through. So I think generally it’s going as well as it can be.

Almost everybody in this office is a veteran of many campaigns, and you realize especially here that it’s a small town. You may be on one side of somebody you have to be on the same side the next day. So we’re all doing our very best to talk to people on all sides of this race, even in our office.

It sounds like for now you’re not going to be able to go forward with a re-done Peavey Plaza. What’s the status right now?

I won’t say forever. I had said, when I wasn’t going to run again, I was pretty much going to do four years of work in one. We’re doing that, but we are making choices about where we can put our time and energy. I had hoped we could have Peavey Plaza designed and broken ground by the end of the year. We had a big setback when we wound up in a legal challenge over preservation issues. I spent a significant amount of time negotiating with both people wanting to get something done and the preservation community and at this point do not see an easy common ground. I’ve had to make a tough decision about where I am going to spend my time over the next few months and have concluded that I am not going to be able to deliver that compromise design that will hold up in court by the end of the year. So we can have a bit of a cooling off there, have Peavey exist as it is, while my time is focused on re-doing Nicollet Mall, doing a streetcar, doing The Yard, trying to re-open Nicollet and working on the river and all the other very crucial design and development issues I want to have an impact on before I leave here.

There’s a pretty heated debate going on about food trucks and I’m wondering if you support any ideas to perhaps find a compromise on this idea, be it move some of them from Marquette or —  how can this be solved?

I love food trucks and spend a lot of time and money there. I believe we should put limits on the numbers we have in downtown and I believe we should have about three per block in the center of town (is) what I would like to see. I am in a legitimate policy disagreement with Council Member (Lisa) Goodman who doesn’t feel that way. As happens, we have to sort that out. We’ve been hoping for the trucks and the bricks-and-mortar folks to come to some compromise too. They’re not there yet. I definitely support having food trucks and I believe we cannot overwhelm the heart of the city where people are paying a lot of property tax to be there. So I believe there should be a limit put on them in the heart of the city while we create more opportunities elsewhere. So I’ll keep looking for that common ground.

I do think, however, we’ve learned a lot from this that should teach us more about food choices as well. For several decades this city had turned internal and up to the second floor. Our food choices in the skyway became increasingly dominated by chains while the rest of the city was turning into one of the best food cities in America. Food trucks, I think, have brought a very necessary new flavor to downtown food. Building owners, I believe, should rightly get a limit on the number of trucks we have in the core. Building owners, however, should also learn that people aren’t going to these just because they want to eat food standing on a corner out of a truck. They’re attracted by innovation, by more diversity, fewer chain operations and I want to encourage more first floors of building to convince some of these truck owners to open an operation. Every truck owner I go to, I say, when are you ready to open a bricks-and-mortar, talk to them about the city programs we have for 2 percent loans and many other things. And I know from our team that works with them directly, almost every single food truck wants to open a bricks-and-mortar business. Building owners rightfully are pushing for us to have more regulation in the core of the city, and I support that. Building owners should be doing dramatically more to simply bring in these food trucks to become bricks-and-mortar restaurants on the ground floor in street level experience.

The days of downtown food only being chains up in the air is over. We just simply have to learn from that experience.

Rybak’s spokesman sent another statement from Rybak on this topic:

When the season is over, I want to sit down with the operators and our staff and go over all the tools that the City has to help them convert into brick-and-mortar restaurants. Food trucks are the best business incubator we’ve had in years.

Do you agree with the owner of Peter’s in that that’s the main cause for sinking his business?

Absolutely not. I have loved Peter’s Grill. I have been a regular customer for 30 years and have to respectfully completely disagree that the food trucks closed Peter’s Grill. In summer and winter, for a number of years, the business was off at what was probably the single restaurant I liked to go to more than anyone else. It wasn’t about food trucks. There were a lot of other factors, but that in my mind was not it, and I loved Peter’s Grill. But I was there enough to know that wasn’t the case. They ran it wonderfully. They had great food. It was the kind of place that I wanted. Not enough people wanted it.

Restaurants are organic and dynamic. They’re institutions and we have plenty of them, but more than most industries, the rapid changing nature of food is part of the dynamic. That’s true in all parts of the city, but downtown’s food choices have lagged behind the innovation taking place in other parts of Minneapolis. Our food trucks have certainly helped that, but to me the long-term solution isn’t to have our streets filled with trucks, it’s to have our buildings filled with cool restaurants that people love to go to.