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

"R.T. is very, very good about getting people excited, and he had a lot of creative ideas," says Andrea Yoch, formerly an advertising representative for the company. Kevin Featherly, an IBS reporter who was fired by Rybak, takes a more sardonic view: "In meetings, R.T. would talk about how we were making great progress; it always sounded like something big was going to happen that would put us over the top. And it didn't. R.T. was sort of like General Westmoreland in Vietnam."

Since leaving IBS in May 1998, Rybak has resurrected R.T. Rybak Co. and refashioned himself as an Internet strategist. He is currently operating Public Radio International's Web site and working to enhance the Web presence of Edina Realty and its parent company, Homeservices. Without revealing any figures, he says that the past two years have been the most lucrative of his career.

To be sure, Rybak has often been the victim of circumstance, from the downtown council's low profile to unrealistic expectations at both the Reader and IBS. Still, there are few shining stars on Rybak's résumé. And where there is a highlight, Rybak has a tendency to embellish.

For instance, the Minneapolis Farmers Market was actually an enterprise concocted and headed by former downtown council marketing director Chris Corcoran. (Corcoran says she doesn't mind Rybak taking credit, because of all the invaluable assistance he provided.) Rybak's Web site also claims that he was a "founder" of the anti-airport-noise group ROAR (Residents Opposed to Airport Racket). He was a member of the group's founding board of directors; the organization was thought up by four other people. And the gay publication that Rybak says he "launched" while publisher of the Twin Cities Reader already existed as an insert in the paper when he arrived; under his guidance, Q Monthly did become a stand-alone publication. None of this is on the order of claiming to invent the Internet, of course, but it does reveal a knack for hyperbolic self-promotion.

Ever the optimist, Rybak insists his roller-coaster work history has readied him for city hall. "I'm proud of the fact that I have not been at all afraid to take risks," he says. "I had never run a business before I went to the Reader and I learned that. Then I didn't know how to go about trying to buy a business and I did that. I didn't know the Internet when I went to IBS.

"I'd also say that pretty much any business I went into I remade in a fairly dramatic fashion. I don't think I would be as good for the city of Minneapolis if things were going perfectly right now. I'm not a caretaker. There are people who make change and people who maintain. I'm the change guy."

 

One hour and two outdoor festivals away from the Juneteenth parade, Rybak is campaigning at Powderhorn Park. There he encounters Anthony, a young black man who says he and his church want to fix up apartments for people in the neighborhood.

"Why do we have an affordable-housing crisis? Well, we used to have all sorts of people owning rental property around here--my stepfather was one of them. Then the tax reform act came on and crack cocaine came in and one by one all of them left," Rybak says in a Tommy-gun cadence. He establishes eye contact. "When my stepfather died my mom was 75, and suddenly she's got an apartment building she wants to sell. The city said, 'Here's a list of all the stuff you've got to do before you sell it." Rybak is holding his hands apart from chin to groin. "I think we can shrink that to about this." He narrows the distance of his hands to about six inches.

"Yeah! Is there a way you can do that?" Anthony says, bending his knees in disbelief. "Because we went through that while we were building a church over there. There were so many restrictions having to do with apartment spaces and things."

"God did you a favor, but the mayor could give you better zoning," Rybak answers.

"Ahhh," Anthony says with a hearty laugh. "That's what I like to hear."

"Let's take all those boarded-up buildings and get a partnership going with you guys," Rybak says, cinching the sale. "As long as you do a couple of things and keep the rents low, then you--not only your church but you as an individual and an entrepreneur--can own it."

"Abso-lute-ly. That's always been my goal," Anthony cries.

"Cool," Rybak says. "So let's go do that. First I've got to go get elected."

"I want you to get elected. You need to come by our church and speak. It's the Open Door, right between 28th and Portland."

"Oh sure. I know the area," Rybak says. "See, my dad had a drugstore at 26th and 4th."

With that, Anthony lets out a whoop and shakes Rybak's hand.

 

Just a few weeks of talking to people out on the campaign trail convinced Rybak that generating affordable housing needed to be his top priority. "As somebody who has had a fair amount of experience in the private sector and in real estate, I believe we have to reengage the private market," he says. "I want to look at zoning and building-code changes, where we can do the bare minimum improvements to get boarded-up buildings opened fast. I want to look at targeted property-tax breaks to provide incentives for the private sector to do more renovation and construction. None of what I'm talking about will work if we can't attract new private investors who want to buy that one or two or three buildings."

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