Working River, or Real-Estate Amenity?

Minneapolis is the head of commercial navigation on the Mississippi river. The city’s barge facilities handle about 600,000 tons of traffic annually–not huge by water-transport standards, but not trivial either.

Concerns about a predatory fish called the Asian Carp have raised the idea of permanently closing the locks at St Anthony Falls and hence eliminating Minneapolis’s industrial waterfront. Maybe this is necessary, or maybe there is an alternative way of dealing with the carp invasion–I don’t know. But I do think that the reaction of the Mayor to the potential termination of barge operations in his city is a little–jarring:

Get over it. Minneapolis does not need a port

What Minneapolis apparently does need, in the opinion of many real-estate developers and politicians, is a new swath of riverfront parks, condos, and restaurants.

Mayor Rybak is a Democrat, and presumably positions himself as an environmentalist–he doesn’t seem very concerned about the approximately 200 additional truck trips a day that would result from the closure of the port. I feel confident that the Mayor talks a lot about the importance of good jobs, but he demonstrates a pretty cavalier attitude toward an important piece of industrial infrastructure.

Hostility toward those types of industry that deal directly with the physical world is quite common among politicians and academics. I’ve written before about the travails of a towboat company in Seattle which had to wait five years for a permit to build “dolphins”–basically, three piles tied together at the top. A local business leader observed that”It’s all cultural…If it were biotech, it would get the green light.” And a columnist summed up the government’s attitude in these words: “Biotech is cool. Propellers and pilings are uncool.”

The cool biotech and software companies, the waterfront condos, the upscale restaurants–all of these things rest on a foundation of barges, freight railroads, dams, mines, and furnaces. There are too many people in important positions who fail to understand this reality or try to obscure it.

As such things go, closing the port of Minneapolis would not be a major economic catastrophe, except for those directly involved…St Paul, with its more extensive waterfront facilities, is not all that far away.. But it provides yet another example of the dismissive attitude of many political and academic elites toward a whole range of economic activity. See my post faux manufacturing nostalgia for further thoughts along these lines.

Related: Environmentalism and the leisure class, in American Spectator

A nicely-done directory of Minnesota’s river ports, here.

17 thoughts on “Working River, or Real-Estate Amenity?”

  1. Businesses located along the river to take advantage of the amenity years ago under the promise it would continue. Minneapolis was originally a mill town thanks to the falls. St. Paul was the port due to it having a landing that broke through the bluffs and gorge of the upper Mississippi river. Above the port of St. Paul were rapids and a double set of falls. Industry at the falls, port traffic at the landing a few miles down river, this is the origin of the Twin cities.

    A series of locks and dams were constructed to bring barge traffic to the river above the falls and covering up the rapids. Minneapolis boosters got the Army Corp of Engineers to destroy to falls beneath a dam, and blew out a channel for a lock to bring traffic up. It was unnecessary then as St. Paul functioned quite perfectly but the rivalry between the two cities couldn’t leave well enough alone and Minneapolis “needed” its own port. Still, companies built along the riverfront in Minneapolis because they could, and could expect access to river traffic.

    The closing the the locks would be the shot that TRIES to force the businesses to relocate. If Minneapolis ends the abomination of the locks and dam on the now destroyed Falls of St. Anthony, they need to compensate the business there that exist only for the barge traffic that supplies them. Plain and simple.

    Minneapolis has grand plans for extending its grand park system around the downtown river (Minneapolis is famous for having preserved its lakes and creeks for public parks), industrial barge traffic crimps those plans. IMO, with my urban geography background, would the city benefit more from all that would come from a well-done park expansion around the river than from the industry currently there? I absolutely do. Especially if they can battle with the NIMBYs who hate buildings taller than 3 stories. But they need to compensate the businesses that are there because of past promises to help their move.

  2. Environmentalists have killed 1000s of farming jobs cutting off irrigation to a portion of the Central Valley – all to protect the Delta Smelt.

  3. They want to impoverish us:

    JANUARY 28, 2012
    “Coal Fuels a Fight in Oregon: Northwest Residents Pulled Between Desire for Jobs, Environmental Concerns”

    “Environmentalists who scuttled development of a coal-export terminal in Washington last year are back at it in Oregon, trying to keep two ports from becoming transit points for coal shipped to the Far East.”

    “Local “greens” are equally adamant that only strict regulation can protect jobs in new industries linked to tourism and retiree havens along Oregon’s seaside, as well as traditional industries such as fishing.”

    I repeat myself:

    “The recession will end when the last lawyer is strangled with the entrails of the last environmentalist”

  4. In the SOTU speech, Obama asserted that we should provide favorable tax treatment for “high-tech manufacturers.” I wonder what he thinks differentiates a “high-tech” manufacturer from a plain old manufacturer….I can tell you what it would be in practice: a combination of fashionability and lobbying prowess.

  5. On one of my vacations, my daughter and I visited Cannery Row, in Monterey, California – fameous for being the setting of John Steinbeck’s novels. Now it’s famed for the Aquarium, and for being a liesure and recreation center, rather than industrial fishing and canning that it used to be. It’s all very lovely there now, quite yuppified; lots of scenic waterfront and tourist attractions. I thought it was quite ironic that Cannery Row was being marketed as a genteel tourist attraction.Steinbeck would be revolving in his grave, at how Cannery Row was prettied up and romanticised. All these upscale modern visitors would have really just run a mile from the real-life versions of the characters that he wrote about: bums, prostitutes, industrial workers, fishermen and soldiers.

  6. Cannery Row is a pretty successful way of coping with the catastrophic drop in the population of tuna and their food supply the past 50 years. There is still some albacore fishing but it is south of San Diego about 100 miles. The sardine population never came back. There are photos in the Tuna Club in Avalon of fishermen, like Zane Grey the novelist, with 400 pound tuna. These haven’t been seen in 75 years. The gentrification was the salvation of Monterrey, not a matter of yuppification.

    Some small towns can be quite inventive when dealing with the consequences of changes they can’t control. Anyone who has visited Leavenworth Washington has seen this. The railroad left and the residents, one in particular, turned the town into an alpine resort.

  7. would the city benefit more from all that would come from a well-done park expansion around the river than from the industry currently there? I absolutely do.

    Can you expand on this?

  8. “Can you expand on this?”

    I last looked at the issue a few years ago when they considered closing the locks purely on a cost basis, not on the basis to block the asian carp. Back then, the “value” of the jobs and businesses to the tax base (local, state, and national) was FAR less than the cost to continue operating the locks, dredging the channels, and policing the traffic between the Port of St. Paul and the Port of Minneapolis. Since then the traffic has plummeted even further.

    I seem to recall it was kept open from political pressure on the ACoE. But shutting the locks down alone will be a money winner.

    Can I guarantee the tax base will rise with denser mixed-use residential/retail/office? No guarantees, but the industrial land has been long eyed by developers for its superior location location location. Views of the skyline, view of the river, highway access, biking distance to downtown, and direct access to the famed city park system. Developers want to build there, but they don’t want build next to a gravel yard or scrap metal yard. If it were next to a warehouse, no big deal.

    The industrial users are fine with their location because of “subsidized” access to barge traffic, would relocate elsewhere were it in their financial interest but no city WANTS a scrap yard or a gravel yard and have mostly zoned against that. The only places that would have those types of industrial uses are so far out in the exurbs and away from the barges they effectively CAN’T move and stay in business.

  9. “no city WANTS a scrap yard or a gravel yard and have mostly zoned against that”

    But they do want the gravel, for all those real-estate construction projects.

  10. There are so many gravel pits around the Twin Cities suburbs I don’t think anyone would miss this going away. There is a massive gravel pit in the suburb of Maple Grove that is slowly being redeveloped into an upscale “lifestyle center” as portions are exhausted. Kinda goes against the idea of people not wanting to live near one though. Gravel pits leave some awesomely interesting terrain to put artificial ponds in and build around. However my understanding was that this facility on the river *mostly* shipped gravel down river, could be misremembering.

  11. The Port of Minneapolis handles inbound raw materials and outbound scrap. It is low-value and low value-added commerce both ways.

    I think the barge traffic adds to the appeal of the riverfront parks.

  12. Kinda goes against the idea of people not wanting to live near one though.

    A gravel pit is one thing. A gravel pit where the operators use explosives to get at the gravel is another.

    Or is that just rock quarries that use explosives?

  13. “I think the barge traffic adds to the appeal of the riverfront parks.”

    I agree, being in the midwest, seeing a barge loaded up with industrial agricultural commodities (though I don’t I eat products made from them) is fully part of the environment. It feels right somehow. If only the Port of Minneapolis was filled with grain elevators loading barges, that’d do right along with the mill ruins, and food warehouses around the place. But Cargill has its port down on the Minnesota River.

  14. A relevant observation cited by Bill Waddell….if you look at where CongressCreatures invest their own money, 41% of it goes into real estate.

    I’d bet that this skew toward real estate is at least as great, and maybe more so, in the case of local government officials.

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