New nonprofit aims to make downtown Saint Paul a destination for all

President Joe Spencer sat down with us after six months on the job to talk about the Saint Paul Downtown Alliance’s goal to fill every corner and block of downtown Saint Paul with people and places that delight and surprise.

Earlier this year, the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundations helped fund the creation of the Saint Paul Downtown Alliance – a new, cross-sector organization representing downtown businesses, nonprofits, government entities, residents and entrepreneurs. We sat down with Joe Spencer, president of the Alliance, to learn more about the organization and the work it’s doing for the businesses, residents and visitors of downtown Saint Paul.

How did the Saint Paul Downtown Alliance come to be?

After a year-long community-based process spearheaded by the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation, it was decided that there was a need for a cross-sector organization explicitly and exclusively focused on downtown Saint Paul. The last few years have seen tremendous growth in the number of people living downtown and different attractions like CHS Field, Palace Theatre, and new bars, restaurants and breweries. It was clear that a collective focus on maintaining that vibrancy for everyone and bringing jobs and businesses downtown was needed.

Thanks to the support of the Foundations and other founding investors, the Alliance launched in February 2018, and I started in June. We have a 16-member board and multiple committees supporting our work and have really hit the ground running as we work to identify opportunities for downtown.

What is your and the Alliance’s vision for downtown Saint Paul?

Our vision is that every corner and every block of our downtown is filled with people and places that delight and surprise us, and that downtown Saint Paul is the best place in the region for people to live, work and spend time with their friends and families.

Why are cross-sector organizations like the Alliance important for the community?

The Alliance is a cross-sector organization because downtowns are inherently places that include all aspects of city life – residential, recreational, professional, and civic. We can’t create a downtown that works for everyone unless all these aspects work together to make sure that needs are met and every opportunity is seized.

What initiatives or community issues are the Alliance focusing on?

We currently have three committees, each focused on a different aspect of life downtown: the employer attraction, retention and growth committee; the downtown experience committee; and the Special Service District feasibility committee.

Our main focus has been exploring the feasibility of a Special Services District, or improvement district – a tool that is utilized by many large North American cities to increase the standards for public spaces in downtown to more successfully attract residents, employers and investments.

We’ve also been working on immediate, short-term strategies to improve the pedestrian experience, and exploring activations of key, strategic locations in our downtown to bring vibrancy and activity to all corners of the city.

What excites you about the Alliance?

It’s exciting to have an organization that is solely focused on how to draw people together around the shared goal of making Saint Paul the best downtown in America. I also think it’s an exciting time for downtowns across the country. We’re seeing demographic trends and other influences that are resulting in the resurgence of downtowns, and with that more and more opportunities for downtown Saint Paul.

What have you learned about the downtown community in your first six months on the job?

I’ve learned that nearly everyone involved with downtown Saint Paul is incredibly eager to contribute, participate and be part of making our community even stronger. Whether it’s volunteers who collect and analyze data, business leaders who serve on our board and committees, or public officials who are all so passionate about the importance of downtown to our city and region – everyone is ready to roll up their sleeves and pitch in.

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