W. 7th property owners get in on the perks of nearby downtown
Commercial properties in the downtown improvement district pay assessments for cleaning and safety services.
By Katie Galioto and James Walsh | Star Tribune
Donning her uniform neon windbreaker Wednesday morning, Ashley Borud pushed a cart of cleaning supplies and trash bags down St. Paul’s W. 7th Street.
She used a trash picker to grab a coffee cup lid and a cigarette butt. She scrubbed fresh graffiti off a parking meter. She stopped to ask a man sleeping on the ground outside the Holiday Inn if he was OK.
Though her route was new, the shift was as typical as any for Borud, the operations manager for St. Paul’s Street Team, which launched in 2021 with the goal of a cleaner, safer downtown. Starting last week, the team’s geographic footprint expanded to several blocks in the W. 7th neighborhood after commercial property owners petitioned the city to join the downtown improvement district.
The privately funded and operated improvement district provides special services — including Street Team patrols and a safety communications center — in exchange for annual assessments. Downtown businesses banded together to create the district to respond to needs in St. Paul’s urban core that fell outside of government purview, or that weren’t being addressed quickly and regularly.
Pat Boemer admitted he was feeling a little salty on Wednesday. The owner of Patrick McGovern’s Pub & Restaurant said he’d just paid his annual property tax bill, about $180,000.
“Don’t get me started,” he said, talking about what he considers inadequate service from the city in exchange for what he pays. “As a taxpayer, it’s really kind of pathetic. If these people were in private industry, they’d all be fired.”
But when Boemer was asked about the prospect of joining the downtown improvement district, he said he’d happily foot the extra expense — about $7,000 a year — to enhance his street’s cleanliness and public safety.
“As much as I take care of my property, and most of us do down here on 7th, it’s just nice to have them doing this,” he said. “Picking up trash, removing graffiti. If you’re going to make the city a little better, it’s worth it to me.”
Boemer opened McGovern’s 41 years ago, making him one of the corridor’s most established businesses, along with Cossetta, DeGidio’s and Mancini’s. Over the years, especially since the opening of Xcel Energy Center, the street’s profile and reputation have grown.
“People who are experiencing St. Paul, especially visitors, experience this area as downtown. They don’t have an awareness of where the line exists,” said Joe Spencer, president of the nonprofit St. Paul Downtown Alliance.
“We just want to put our best foot forward,” he added, especially since downtowns across the country have struggled to rebound from the pandemic.
State law lays out the process for creating and enlarging special service districts, which can be vetoed if a certain percentage of property owners object. Spencer said he’s confident there is enough support to expand along W. 7th.
In addition to property owner support, the change requires City Council approval. That process is likely to start in the coming weeks, with the goal of officially adding W. 7th to the district at the start of next year. A grant from the Knight Foundation is paying for services in the meantime.
The downtown improvement district board, which consists of property owners, set a $1.2 million budget for 2023. Commercial property owners pay into the fund through assessments calculated based on their building’s square footage and their street frontage.
The district contracts the Downtown Alliance to manage operations like the safety center, where a dispatcher helps coordinate communications between private security teams, police and social service agencies. With a camera-sharing program and live communication channel, officials in the center are able to see and spread real-time safety information throughout the downtown network.
“There are certain benefits to living outside the government,” Spencer said. “We coordinate with the city a lot, of course. … But we’re just a smaller organization. We can be super responsive and agile.”
Kathy Gosiger, general manager of Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub, said the business is on board to try joining the district for a year. While she’s not sure if the visibility of the green-clad Street Team will make customers and tourists feel better, Gosiger is hopeful their work will make a difference.
“You know the old saying: People don’t see clean, but they see dirty,” she said. “I think this will help.”
Borud and her team are off to a start, out and about from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day. On a given shift, the Street Team could help shovel snow from a street corner, weed cracks in the sidewalk or provide an escort to a vehicle.
Continuing along her route Wednesday, Borud moved a few Spin scooters to the edge of the sidewalk and chatted with a man wondering when Cossetta opened.
As he walked away, she radioed the question to the dispatcher and called after him: “It opens at 11.”