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BEST USE OF TAXPAYER DOLLARS Minneapolis 1999 -

The new name is a freebie. It's the revamping of the 17.6 acres that for 70 years was known as the Sears complex that'll cost a pretty penny. No one has yet tallied up the final price tag for this public-private venture, probably because the blueprints keep changing from month to month, but the cost of merely cleaning up the site is expected to hit the six-million-dollar mark by ribbon-cutting time. And what a long, hard trip it's been just to arrive at a plan everyone could agree upon: Since the Sears operation shut down in 1994, scads of hard-to-swallow proposals have been put on the table (including one from a Chicago speculator that called for razing the whole structure and installing a squat, suburban-style strip mall). Then last year along came local developer STA Associates (cf. Calhoun Square), with a winning brainchild that will rewrite the 1.9-million-square-foot complex's fate into, as one bigwig put it, the economic heart of the city's South Side. Think: an express-bus transit hub serving thousands of commuters daily; a greenway; educational facilities, government offices, and light industry in the original, 250-foot landmark tower; a kaboodle of retail shops and restaurants; a first-run movie theater; and a vast plaza fronting on Lake Street, complete with food vendors, buskers, fountains, and a kids' playground. Who pays? In large part, we do, in the form of tax-increment financing courtesy of the City Council, plus millions from Minneapolis Community Development Agency, Neighborhood Revitalization Program, and Met Council coffers, as well as more than $1.5 million in federal "Empowerment Zone" money. Why is it worth it? Because this massive overhaul is expected to generate nearly 5,000 livable-wage jobs. Because Minneapolis rips down too many one-of-a-kind buildings that could be put to profitable use. And because, as Mark Simon, president of the Chicago-Lake Business Association, said last year, kicking such a sizable chunk of change into one of the city's most economically depressed neighborhoods causes ripples. "There'll be all kinds of people looking at other property around here....It'll be like ringing a bell at a fight: Ding!"

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