The Cars of St. Bonifacius

One licensed cab for every three people--and not a fare in sight: Welcome to the Panama of the North

Head west on Highway 7 past Excelsior about 35 miles from Minneapolis, cross the rails put in place a century ago by the Great Northern Railroad, and you'll be in St. Bonifacius, population 1180. Immediately off to the right across a grassy ditch is the St. Boni Farm Store, which Tom Logelin's father started in 1932 as a feed and seed store and Logelin has continued as an appliance outlet. Logelin--a dignified man with a shock of wavy gray hair and an "I'd Rather Be Fishing" belt buckle that explains his nut-brown tan--gracefully winds up a dishwasher demonstration before approaching another potential customer.

"Oh, yeah, the taxicab thing," he says when informed of the visitor's question. "We register more damn taxis out here than any other place around. We always know it's that time of the year--October or November--because there are a stream of taxis stopping here, asking for directions." But this year may see the last time Logelin leaves his sea of white Whirlpools to gesture the way to city hall (up the hill and to the right). If state regulators have their way, St. Boni will have to gear up its bureaucracy, or forsake its unlikely status as the metro's taxicab capital.

If St. Boni gets out of the licensing business, says driver Hamid Pardaz, he'll have to scramble for another patron saint
Craig Lassig
If St. Boni gets out of the licensing business, says driver Hamid Pardaz, he'll have to scramble for another patron saint

First, some numbers. A decade ago, according to city hall estimates, St. Bonifacius had only about 50 licensed cabs. But in the last few years, cabdrivers around the metro area have found out that Logelin's directions lead them to one of the best license deals around: $50 per car per year, compared with more than $300 in St. Paul and $400 in Minneapolis. Airport cabdrivers, who have to be licensed with a metropolitan city in order to receive a permit, have been taking notice. In 1998, 390 cars--more than two-thirds of all airport cabs--were licensed in St. Bonifacius. That's roughly one cab for every three people in St. Bonifacius, for a total number that edges out the 343 registered cabs in the city of Minneapolis, and eclipses the 124 licensed by St. Paul.

Minneapolis taxicab inspector Mike Rumppe says he's not surprised cab operators are looking for alternatives: In most large cities, the number of licenses is limited by statute. "To get a cab license, you have to buy it from someone who already has one," Rumppe explains. "The going rate--fair market value with city approval on the sale--is $18,000." Both Minneapolis and St. Paul also require twice-yearly mechanical inspections, as well as criminal-history and driving-record checks for taxi operators.

And so, just as merchant ships around the world fly the flags of Liberia and Panama, cabdrivers flock to the regulatory haven of St. Bonifacius. "It's simple," says Phyllis Bacon, the town's assistant clerk. "They show us proof of ownership--a title, insurance--and proof that the vehicle has been inspected for safety. As long as they have those things, we can give them the license." Once Bacon or her co-workers sign off on the paperwork, she acknowledges, most cabdrivers are not seen again inside the St. Boni city limits until it's time for their annual renewal, usually in late fall.

Hamid Pardaz, who drives for an Apple Valley-based company called Aspen Travel Taxi, has licensed his cab in St. Bonifacius for four years. The shiny blue Ford Taurus soaks up the sun as Pardaz waits for his number--A07 Aspen--to appear on a digital board in the city hall parking lot. He has rolled down the windows, kicked off his shoes, and unfurled a Farsi newspaper. When a visitor approaches, he puts the paper down with a broad smile: "Our great poet, Ahmad Shamloo, was just nominated for a Nobel Prize," he beams, pointing to a postage stamp-sized picture.

Pardaz, who's originally from the northern part of Iran, says he found out about St. Boni from the other drivers who idle their cabs in a parking lot near the airport between fares. "When I first started going to St. Boni, city hall was in a house," he recalls. "Now they have a new city hall. I don't want to assume things, but seems like they make a lot of money." Indeed, the city's 390 cabs provide a total of $19,500, or eight percent of the city's annual revenue, according to Brenda Fisk, the town's city clerk and treasurer, who says that St. Boni "uses the taxi money every year to reduce our general tax levy. It's really hard, especially in a small town, to get [revenues] in to reduce your taxes."

 

St. Bonifacius wasn't always a taxi town. The area was settled in the 1850s by German immigrants, among them Tom Logelin's grandfather, and Logelin serves as the community's unofficial historian. At one point, he boasts, "we were a hub of commerce for the surrounding area. Much bigger than Mound, Excelsior, Waconia." The locally headquartered Minnetonka Canning Company "was the biggest cannery west of the Mississippi. Every canned good on the Great Northern came from St. Boni."

But the advent of the automobile changed all that, Logelin says, allowing people to travel further for their errands and cutting into business on Main Street. Car travel also hurt the rail business, which put the pinch on Minnetonka Canning. The firm shut down its assembly lines during the Depression. "Isn't it ironic?" Logelin asks, in an oratory style used most recently when he spoke at the local Memorial Day service. "Whereas in the old days the development of the automobile started the demise of St. Boni, today's great income is from the automobile."

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