How to make the Twin Cities the best region in America

The good life in Minnesota: A 12-step plan to greatness in the Midwest

How to make the Twin Cities the best region in America

A classic Time magazine cover from August 13, 1973, shows Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson on a lakeshore, hoisting a big fish, next to the headline: "The Good Life in Minnesota." The accompanying article touted Minnesota as a state that works, an example to be envied and emulated throughout the nation.

More than 40 years later, we're hip again. Time and again, lately, Minneapolis-St. Paul tops '"Best places to live" lists. Our job growth is solid and our real estate prices have rebounded and then some.

We've got music, theater, and literature, and we just legalized gay marriage. You can bike just about anywhere, and we're undergoing a massive local food and beer boom.

But nothing is perfect. So what will it take to prepare the Twin Cities for a great future? We asked a crack panel of experts.

1. Keep bringing back the downtowns

Millennials are wary of the suburban two-car lifestyle. Many empty-nesters are looking to downsize and trade the single-family home for the convenience of a downtown apartment. There's plenty of demand for more city-centered lifestyles.

"We've always had a strong enough downtown," says former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. "But now we've added thousands of new residents, and turned a strong 12-hour-a-day downtown into a 24-hour vibrant place to work, live, and play."

Downtown Minneapolis is pulsing with the sound of construction. Even the much-maligned Block E finally will have a second life as a haven for the Timberwolves and the Mayo Clinic. With the Vikings stadium a done deal, Nicollet Mall is ready for its makeover. Even downtown St. Paul is showing signs of life.

But downtowns aren't just buildings and infrastructure. As in typography, what's left unoccupied in between is just as important to making it work.

John Soranno, the co-founder of Punch Pizza, got his 15 minutes of fame when President Barack Obama gave him a shout-out in his State of the Union address in January. Soranno also knows a thing or two about dense, vibrant downtowns, having spent part of his childhood in Milan, Italy.

"I would like to see more parks in downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul," he says. "Block E should have never been built. If we would have made the commitment 20 years ago to make that an urban park space, I think that would have paid dividends for downtown Minneapolis."

Soranno likes the plans for a new park in downtown Minneapolis, next to the new Vikings stadium. He calls Peavey Plaza the perfect example of an urban park that works.

2. Support the local-food explosion

Gone are the days when a typical Minnesota meal was bland and white. When sophisticated mega-city dwellers from the coasts do end up here, they're often blown away.

"It's like an explosion," says Heartland Restaurant owner and chef Lenny Russo, who was a finalist for this year's James Beard award for Best Chef Midwest.

Customers have become more discerning and adventurous. The farm-to-table movement is everywhere from food trucks to fine dining.

"Every week I get at least one or two emails from another farmer who's raising a heritage breed of some sort of animal," says Russo. "Let's face it, it's all about the ingredients. You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but you can certainly fry it and put it in your stomach."

Along with the dining explosion comes a local-beer boom. Local breweries have been successful for years, but since the Legislature allowed them to sell beer onsite in 2012, tap rooms have sprouted up all over.

Qiuxia Welch is the co-founder of the Boom Island Brewing Company, which specializes in Belgian-style beers. The brewery has been around for two and a half years. A tap room followed last December.

"We're just trying to keep up with demand," says Welch.

Our growing sophistication about what we put in our mouths in general helps small breweries, says Welch. "People are looking for local products. They want to support small businesses instead of corporations. That's part of the wider trend."

So how do we solidify our status as a nascent foodie capital?

"We've got to continue to make it an attractive place for small restaurants to open up," says Soranno. "The less barriers we have for first-time restaurant owners like I was 18 years ago, the better."

A growing number of restaurants around the Twin Cities have to compete over the same limited talent pool and pay good people top dollar, says Russo. That puts a strain on budgets, because even high-end restaurants operate on thin margins. So why not expand the talent pool?

"It would be a great thing if there was some kind of funding mechanism available to help young people develop the skills they need to fill these positions. Maybe we need to come up with some kind of an apprenticeship program, where we work with the trade schools and the culinary academies, and with the high schools as well."

In any case, we shouldn't hesitate to blow our own horn, and promote ourselves as a foodie destination, says Russo. "We have things that are either as good or better than any place else. There's no reason Andrew Zimmern should live here, but he's still here."

3. Fix the traffic mess

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