A community vision for St. Paul

We are at an exciting moment in St. Paul. There are less than 84 days until the new Green Line light rail service begins on June 14. This is a moment I have been anticipating for more than seven years, but I know others have been waiting for decades.

Already the trains are being tested along the line, which will run between St. Paul and Minneapolis, past the state Capitol, the University of Minnesota and other colleges and schools, hospitals and health care clinics, more than a thousand small businesses, and dozens of neighborhoods. I get goose bumps every time I see a train go by, and not just because of our frigid temperatures.

Why has this light rail line become so important to me, this community and Knight Foundation? This billion-dollar infrastructure investment is a once-in-a-century opportunity to transform a city—to create stronger businesses, more vibrant neighborhoods and more beautiful urban spaces—along the spine of St. Paul, also referred to as the Central Corridor in the city’s master plan. But even more important, the ripples of this work can be felt throughout the region, and across the country.

The light rail line has become a national model for how philanthropy can capitalize on major transit investments to create “corridors of opportunity” for small businesses and residents to attract both private development and young professionals who are especially eager to live near transit and thriving business districts that celebrate culture and diversity.

This focus is an important element of our Community and National Initiatives program. At Knight we support the success of our communities through investments that attract, retain and harness talent; that expand opportunity by increasing entrepreneurship and economic mobility; and that build places that accelerate the growth of ideas and bring people from diverse social and economic backgrounds together.

We’ve been working with our partners on this effort for several years. In 2007 Knight co-founded the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, an initiative designed to bring together a diverse group to work across sectors and jurisdictions to learn, plan and execute strategies to maximize the potential of the new light rail line. Currently nine teams are working together on everything from business and economic development to bike and pedestrian connections, and from preserving affordable housing to leveraging nearby educational and medical institutions to increase local hiring and purchasing.

Here are just some of the civic innovations that are underway:

  • A partnership with the city of St. Paul and the St. Paul Riverfront Corp.’s St. Paul Design Center expedites private projects in keeping with the city’s vision for the Central Corridor.
  • The Central Corridor is also a cultural corridor focused on creating vitality around unique destinations, such as Little Mekong, home to many Southeast Asian immigrants; Rondo, St. Paul’s historic African-American hub; Little Africa, a growing cluster of immigrant businesses; and the Creative Enterprise Zone, a new name for a longstanding community of artists and artisans.
  • U7, a collaborative of seven organizations working along University Avenue (the main thoroughfare the Green Line will traverse), provided assistance and loans during the four years of construction to help businesses keep their doors open. This experience is now the foundation of an effort to provide technical assistance and entrepreneurship training in the Central Corridor.
  •, a database and website designed to connect potential workers with construction jobs and training opportunities, is now expanding for use on other major construction projects. And a partnership between Summit Academy OIC and Hire Minnesota is creating a workforce-forecasting tool that was successfully tested during the Central Corridor light rail project. Both these tools helped meet goals for hiring minorities and women during construction and will have a continuing impact in our community.

Knight’s leadership through the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative is an important part of our commitment to St. Paul, but it isn’t the only initiative. Knight has deep local roots in St. Paul, and recently announced $8 million in new arts funding, including an expansion of the Knight Arts Challenge. Talk about goose bumps! It’s another way of building an informed and engaged St. Paul. I’m looking forward to seeing what the future brings and to working together to build an even more successful community.

Polly M. Talen, St. Paul program director at Knight Foundation