Give me an R! Give me a T!

Happy to be compared to St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, R.T. Rybak wants to use Minneapolis's top office to sell the city

Eberhardt had been hired by developer Ray Harris, who had exclusive rights to develop a huge retail and entertainment complex on Block E. "R.T. was there to recruit tenants," recalls Harris, CEO of Urban Development and the owner of Calhoun Square and other Minneapolis properties. "Do I think he did a great job for me? No. I don't recall him doing anything of significance. But that wasn't why the project failed. It was a rough financial market and we weren't able to arrange the financing in time to meet the city's timetable."

As a member of the Downtown council, Rybak had worked to convince Target to open an urban store. But after extensive negotiations with a variety of firms and potential partners, he could not structure a deal without significant subsidies from the city (still less money, he claims, than what taxpayers are underwriting in the current deal). Target contacted Rybak at Eberhardt to help them reevaluate the possibility of building downtown. He assisted the company in assessing potential locations and design options, and in choosing Minnetonka-based Opus Corporation as the project developer. Some five years later, Target finally struck a deal with the city, albeit with a different developer. (Target spokesperson Carolyn Brookner says the company would not comment on any aspect of its relationship with Rybak.)

In the "About R.T." section of his campaign Web site, rtformayor.com, Rybak describes his work on the downtown council as being "a salesperson for Minneapolis who brought big and small businesses to town." Pressed for specific examples, he cites the restaurant Chez Bananas and the now-defunct Baxter Books as small businesses he successfully recruited. His big-business example is Target. On numerous occasions, in fact, he has described himself as "a major player in getting the Target store downtown." Yet he also claims that if he had been mayor, he never would have approved the deals for Block E (which involves $30 million in city-backed bonds) or Target (which contains $62 million in subsidies).

Diana Watters

After his role on the Target-store project concluded in 1991, Rybak was contracted by the corporation to serve as liaison between the Target stores and the then-recently named Target Center arena, most notably creating the TREATSEATS discount ticket program that became a national model. The work was lucrative enough for him to leave Eberhardt and go out on his own for three years under the aegis of R.T. Rybak Co., supplementing his Target account by working with Starbucks and the Minnesota Historical Society, among others. Setting aside 30 percent of his time for volunteer community activities and political work, he became deeply involved in Rip Rapson's 1992 mayoral campaign and former Tony Bouza's gubernatorial bid in 1994. He also co-founded the environmental group SWIM (Save the Water In Minneapolis), with his wife Megan.

The business was going so well that it took six months of lobbying to convince Rybak to sign on as publisher of the floundering Twin Cities Reader in September 1994. "I walked in and things were on fire," Rybak recalls. "The idea was to move on things very quickly. We juiced up ad revenue, redesigned the distribution system, redid the printing contract, hired a new editor, launched an arts section and [the GLBT paper] Q Monthly. I went back to the owners and said, 'We did all this. Now it is time for you to put more money in.' And they said, 'We're not putting in a dime. We're trying to sell this thing.' The owners were called CityMedia at the time and they sucked it dry. They were pricks." (Rybak was hired by Thomas Minnhagen, a former CEO and president at CityMedia, who could not be reached for comment.)

Rybak claims he assembled investors and tried to buy the Reader for approximately $2.5 million in 1995, and again a year later. CityMedia preferred to package the weekly into a sale of all its local media properties--including Corporate Report magazine and the weekly paper City Business--to American City Business Journals. (ACBJ eventually sold the Reader to Stern Publishing, which purchased City Pages in February 1997 and closed the Reader soon after.)

Once his second purchase proposal had been rejected, Rybak accepted an offer to become vice president of Internet Broadcasting Systems in December of 1996. In essence, he became the publisher of IBS's Channel 4000, a news Web site set up in partnership with WCCO-TV (Channel 4). Before he took the job, he had been online exactly twice in his life and didn't know how to send an e-mail. He would last 17 months.

"I want it reflected that I think the world of R.T.," says IBS president Reid Johnson. "But the biggest challenge that Web sites have is selling advertising. At the time R.T. was here, online-only advertising was fading, and we needed someone to focus 95 percent of their time on ad sales. R.T. decided that was not what he came to us for."

"I walk in not knowing anything about the Internet and right out of the chute I had to run the newsroom, the partnership with 'CCO, the technical Web shop," Rybak remembers. "One week CBS is going to buy us and we're all going to be multimillionaires. And the next week we're broke. I kind of loved it because I'm more of an open-field runner, but it did get kind of nuts. And after a certain point, the money just wasn't there."

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