Notes of a Native Son

For an immigrant kid from Northeast, Walt Dziedzic did all right for himself. His proudest accomplishment? That he never forgot where he came from.

Anyone who knows Walt Dziedzic is bound to have heard the story of Lake Sandy, which is really the story of how the city fathers screwed Northeast--his neighborhood--out of a lake. It's Dziedzic's favorite yarn. "The people who now live way out in the suburbs in the golden west," he explains, "they used to live at 20th and Park Avenue in those big mansions. They were the power elite in this city. They took, at the turn of the century, the dredgings from Lake of the Isles--you know with all them nice homes there? And they hauled it up to Northeast Minneapolis and filled in Lake Sandy so that the Soo line railroad yard could expand."

Dziedzic, who is stepping down to run for Park Board this January after 21 years of representing the 1st Ward on the Minneapolis City Council, could be called the Lake Sandy avenger. In the well-heeled circles where power mingles, the ex-cop and sports hero--with his cursing and spitting, his bulky physique, and his second-language English--is a perennial outsider. He's often portrayed as some kind of meaty ward boss, a crusty holdover from the past, and he is all of that. But looks can be deceiving. "People underestimate Walter," says former mayor and longtime Dziedzic supporter Al Hofstede. In the past two decades Dziedzic has transformed his loyal Northeast political base into formidable citywide clout, making him, in the estimation of one pol, "one of the most prominent politicians in the city."

For Dziedzic, Lake Sandy is more than an illustrative story--it's a parable, an encapsulation of Minneapolis politics, with its geographic and economic fault lines: between north and south, the moneyed class and the working class, the dredged-clean and the dumped-upon. A lot has changed in Minneapolis since they dredged Lake of the Isles, but the fundamental split remains the same. The power elite may have left South Minneapolis for the "golden west" of suburbia, but they left in their wake the lakeshore Volvo set, a diffuse liberal elite that still exercises control over City Hall, not to mention the city's business and media. When Dziedzic steps down from office come January, there will be one less voice to challenge them.

If you want to measure Walt Dziedzic's clout, you could start with the enormous shopping center going up in his ward on Stinson Boulevard. Dziedzic counts the multimillion-dollar development project among his crowning achievements. "I always promised these people that someday I was going to buy my Christmas turkey at a big store in Northeast Minneapolis," he says, wheeling his car through the massive parking lot where the streetlights are still wrapped in plastic. "This is the year."

Housing as it does Rainbow Foods, Target, Home Depot, Office Max ("all the power stores in the country," reckons Dziedzic) the complex promises 450,000 square feet of shopping. That's about 8 square feet for every man, woman, and child in Dziedzic's ward, making it the largest retail development in the city outside of downtown. The price tag is some $110 million, and includes new freeway ramps and street work to direct traffic flow. Developing the complex is Ryan Corporation, one of a handful of key players in Minneapolis's downtown development landscape.

Back when Dziedzic was chair of the Ways and Means Committee, he led a revolt against then-Mayor Don Fraser, who vetoed one of Ryan's downtown developments. "I got the votes to override the veto," Dziedzic remembers, "and when we got the ninth vote and it passed, old man Ryan jumped out of his seat with a big grin. I'll never forget that. His sons, who pretty much run the business now, always said that they're going to do some things Northeast, so we asked them to help us put this together and they have, and it's good for them."

Massive as the development is, it's only one of dozens of deals that Dziedzic has shepherded into his ward. When Norm Coleman recently dangled a stadium-sized sweetheart deal in front of Lawson Software to lure them out of Northeast and into downtown St. Paul, Dziedzic was quick to intervene, dragging Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton into one of their meetings to convince the company to stay. "They liked how aggressive we became," he says, "but they were already swooned by Mayor Coleman."

In the overall picture, the loss of Lawson is negligible. He's not worried about filling their empty office space: "They're waiting in line," he says. Besides, there are still the Dayton's and the UPS warehouses, Cream of Wheat, General Mills, Nabisco, the Bureau of Engraving, Lucent Technologies, the Fox 29 television studio, a Sheraton, and a Fortune 500 medical supply company. And that's not to mention dozens of small businesses, warehouses, and factories that together make up what is probably the largest industrial zone in the inner city. All of them, at one point or another, have obtained the Walt Dziedzic seal of approval. "Not bad, huh?" he crows. "Not bad for Nordeast. This all happened since I got into office. Putting it conservatively, I'll betcha there's $40 to $50 million on the plus side that we've increased the tax base--and I mean real taxes, I don't mean assessed value. Assessed value might be in the billions."

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