Christopher Ferguson, Metropolitan Council member for District 3, stands near the Southwest Light-Rail Transit extension project taking shape in Eden Prairie. The extension will run about 14.5 miles from Target Field Station in Minneapolis to Southwest Station in Eden Prairie.
When it comes to racial equity in the Twin Cities, Christopher Ferguson doesn’t think much has changed in the two decades he’s called Minnesota home.
Though there has been some incremental progress, the Metropolitan Council District 3 board member and Eden Prairie resident said it’s far from enough.
Ferguson, 50, has been on the 17-member policy-making board that guides the metro area’s strategic growth since his appointment in May 2019 by Gov. Tim Walz. District 3 includes Eden Prairie and 16 other cities, including Chanhassen, Excelsior, Minnetonka, and Wayzata.
“The Twin Cities and the state have some of the greatest racial inequities in the nation in most categories, whether it’s homeownership, employment levels, income levels, wealth levels, or graduation rates,” he said. “In almost all those categories, we’re in the bottom 5 of the 50 metro area for racial equity gaps.”
Finding ways to improve racial equity in the region is a key concern facing the Met Council, says the longtime businessman.
According to his Met Council biography, he said working to address racial disparities is essential in driving economic growth in the region. Ferguson, who is biracial, looked forward to working with local elected officials and engaging with the “broader community.”
The council oversees Metro Transit’s bus and rail system, including the Southwest Light-Rail Transit extension from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie and such services as regional parks, wastewater treatment systems, and affordable housing.
“We have to convince people that it’s not about just charity,” he said on equity. “It’s really about growing our economy and making this a better place for everybody. If we view it that way, then it’s a little different way of tackling the problem.”
When hearing of the Met Council opening, Ferguson jumped at the chance to offer his business perspective.
He thinks the government should be involved in bettering the lives of the citizens it represents. That includes creating an environment where businesses can thrive.
The vice president of business development and delivery for The Summit Group and president and CEO for Bywater Business Solutions came to Minnesota to work for ADC Telecommunications in 2000. That company left Eden Prairie long ago, but he stayed put, won over by the city’s parks, trails, and golf courses.
Born in Winnipeg, Canada, he has a master’s degree in environmental engineering from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and a law degree and MBA from York University in Toronto.
“When businesses are growing and succeeding, they’re hiring more people, paying taxes, and supporting the infrastructure that we need as a good society,” he said. “And transportation is a key part of that.”
The Twin Cities consistently rates as one of the top regions in the nation for people to live. But he said that’s not the case for everyone.
If racial equity gaps close, he thinks it will bring people into the labor force. Before the pandemic, he estimated 150,000 to 160,000 more jobs available than people looking for work.
“The ability to solve some of these significant inequities that we have is imperative for us to continue to be one of the best places for people to live,” he said.
Ferguson’s involvement with Met Council issues began when he owned a business on the METRO Green Line, which opened in 2014. From 2010-14, he chaired the Central Corridor Business Resources Collaborative, a non-profits and government group that supported the 800 or business along the transit line.
“One of the critical resources of all companies is people,” he said on transit. “A companies’ ability to get people to work every day is a critical part of the infrastructure for a thriving economy.”
A sound transit system is one factor in attracting younger workers to the Twin Cities, he said.
“We don’t have the same transportation or transit infrastructure that other cities have and enjoy, but it’s a network that’s growing,” he said. “Our transit system is one of those amenities that young people, based on the data, are looking for in cities that they wanted to settle in and start a family.”
Once the Southwest LRT opens for business, Ferguson said it would benefit Eden Prairie with increased access to jobs and an expanded tax base to fund schools and amenities.
The 14.5-mile extension of the Green Line will wind its way through the Southwest Corridor, containing some of the state’s largest employers.
“We have lots of companies that have a significant opening for employees (in Eden Prairie and Minnetonka),” he said. “Providing that connection to an employee based in Minneapolis and St. Paul where people can take the train and come out and work at C.H. Robinson or UnitedHealthcare or Eaton or Optum (is) critical.”
In January, the Met Council announced that unforeseen conditions in the Minneapolis segment of the alignment would cause project delays. Initially, the plan was for passenger service to begin in 2023.
Ferguson, who began his career as a civil engineer, described the two current problems as engineering challenges.
One issue concerns poor soil conditions affecting the building of a tunnel in the Kenilworth corridor. The other is building corridor protection between freight and light-rail trains.
“(Engineers) can find a solution to pretty much any technical issue from a construction perspective,” he said. “People have been doing this for a long time. But sometimes those solutions take a little time to figure out, and sometimes, like this case, cause delays.”
Ferguson is not convinced that government is the solution to improving racial equity. He said companies such as the U.S. Bank and Royal Bank of Canada are making strides on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“(Those companies) decided that it’s good for their organizations, it’s good for the people that they serve, and it’s good for the employees that they have and the communities that they’re in,” he said.
Ultimately, he thinks corporations will lead equity efforts.
“We have to make sure that government, including the Met Council, are enablers in that process, and we’re not doing anything that prevents the progress from continuing to happen,” he said.
Halfway into his term, Ferguson said his council role offers him the opportunity to make the community a better place for his and his neighbor’s children.
Ferguson has two sons: Henry, 14, a student at Central Middle School, and Jamie, 11, a student at Eagle Heights Spanish Immersion.
However, he admits the transition from business to the government can be frustrating at times.
“You would like to get more done quicker,” he said. “It’s just a lot of process and rules and regulations and political things that you’ve got to deal with trying to get things done.”