Eden Prairie Mayor Ron Case sat down last month to discuss what he deems are the city’s successes in 2022 and what’s in store for 2023.
Case thinks the city is in a positive place, noting the progress of several key initiatives, including the adoption of the Eden Prairie Race Equity Report in January 2022.
He also shared his goals for 2023, which include keeping close tabs on the budget and its impact on taxes, and expanding the council’s efforts to reach out to the community by going on the road and holding town halls, business roundtable groups, and meeting with the immigrant community and senior citizens.
Case also weighed in on various topics related to the city, including the status of the Metro Green Line Extension project, the advancement of affordable housing efforts, crime, the long-term plan for Flying Cloud Airport, and the shooting incident at Scheels last August.
Beginning his second term, he also emphasized his love for the city and his pride in serving as its mayor.
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted his first term as mayor. However, now that the pandemic is subsiding, the city is able to return to its normal ways of conducting meetings and connecting with residents through events.
“I do very much enjoy [being mayor],” said the former teacher and current director of operational effectiveness for Optum Financial at UnitedHealth Group. “It’s the capstone of my professional career, and I enjoy helping people, solving problems, and connecting people to solutions.”
A look back and ahead
Case, who was handily reelected in November, said the election allowed him and his fellow council member incumbents Mark Freiberg and Kathy Nelson (who were also reelected) to address important issues and concerns in the city while campaigning.
Their message, Case said, focused on the city’s favorable economic activity and advancements being made on “key initiatives from climate action, affordable housing, to the systemic racism study.”
“Those things were goals and put into place,” Case said.
He pointed out that the city has been recognized as one of “Minnesota’s Top Workplaces” by the Star Tribune for the last nine years. In 2022, it ranked No. 49 in the midsize category. He noted that Eden Prairie was the only city in the state to make the list.
“There’s just a lot of positivity that the council itself is working so well together,” he said. “We represent different perspectives and political parties, but we all like each other and we care about the city.”
Case hopes to continue that positive trajectory into 2023. “My No. 1 goal during the campaign and now is that we would continue on that good path,” he said.
When discussing the city’s 2023 budget, he acknowledged that taxes might have seemed high to many residents.
“It’s just problems of running government in a high inflationary environment,” he said. “When three-fourths of our budget is people-centered salaries and benefits, I think we did a really good job; [the]budget just went up 3.2%. I think that’s one of the lowest around. So a goal for 2023 would be just to keep close tabs on our budget and the impact on the levy and property taxes.”
Case also discussed plans to continue partnerships and expand the council’s efforts to reach out to residents by going “on the road” with town halls.
“We started that [in 2022],” he said. “We did three town halls specifically targeted to certain groups. We had a business breakfast one morning with the Chamber of Commerce, we had an immigrant community invited to the public library in the evening one night, and then we went to two senior resident apartment buildings and brought the council to them. They were the best attended because everyone lived right there.”
He aims to establish a business roundtable group that meets quarterly to provide feedback to the city and gain insight into the needs and concerns of the business community. The goal is to expand the city’s approach to business and find ways to support the community.
Last January, the city council reviewed and accepted a report outlining recommendations for making the community more equitable and inclusive.
The Race Equity Report, prepared by the city Human Rights and Diversity Commission (HRDC), provides a plan for the council to follow to promote diversity and equity in Eden Prairie.
Case said HRDC members would monitor the city’s progress in implementing these recommendations and hold them accountable for making changes in the community.
“They will keep our feet to the fire,” he said.
Some key suggestions in the report include altering hiring procedures, building connections with diverse communities, and specifically increasing representation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.
He thinks one of the key takeaways was the importance of not just listening to the BIPOC community but also taking action to ensure that they have opportunities to connect with the city and be heard. To increase engagement opportunities, he suggests that the city organize community events, such as picnics in parks or visiting specific buildings where diverse BIPOC communities reside.
Case emphasized the importance of monitoring data and statistics related to policing and paying close attention to diversity within the police department.
While this is a difficult issue to address, he said the study reinforced the need for greater diversity within the department.
“But it’s a really difficult thing when you have one opening, and you have 20 applicants and only one person of color [applying],” he added.
To increase diversity within the department, Case suggests that the department prioritizes recruiting BIPOC individuals as potential officers while they are still in high school. This can be done by actively seeking out potential candidates and providing scholarships to them.
Most state police departments prefer that prospective officers have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in law enforcement or a related field.
“I think the awareness, the sensitivity and the desire is there to really mold our police department into a reflection of our community,” he said. “We have great police officers. We just want to make sure that we’re continuing to work at the diversity.”
According to Case, the city is using multiple approaches to address crime.
Based on data and statistics, he said crime levels are not as severe as previously believed and that the city is doing better than some other communities.
Case emphasized the importance of partnerships with other communities and highlighted a planned gathering of mayors from the southwest metro area in February. The gathering’s purpose is to discuss potential next steps in working with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey to address crime.
“We want to ask him, ‘Where can we help? Where can we assist you in doing the good work you’re doing?,” he said. “Because any problems that don’t get resolved in Minneapolis end up coming out to the suburbs.”
He also wants to meet with Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty to gain insights into her perspectives and plans regarding crime and criminal justice.
“Crime itself is a problem to the extent that the data is the data, but it’s also a problem of fear,” he said. “And the fear is often greater than the data and the stats. And that’s what we need to address as well. To make sure that the people of Eden Prairie know that public safety is our No. 1 goal that we ought to be addressing above really everything else.”
Case added that the city is working with legislators to address the problem of car crimes, specifically carjackings and catalytic converters thefts. “We’ve got to get catalytic converter legislation that stops it at the point of the wholesaler purchasing these,” he said.
Light rail transit
Case was asked about the Metro Green Line Extension project, also known as the Southwest light rail line, which encountered delays and budgetary concerns in 2022.
Some individuals have expressed concerns that the 14.5-mile extension from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, set to be completed in 2027, could increase crime in the area.
“Regardless if one at the end of the day is a proponent or opponent of it, it’s going to happen,” he said. “There’s way too much investment not to finish the job.”
The Metropolitan Council is currently facing a sizable budget shortfall in the completion of the $2.7 billion project. Still, Case is optimistic that it will be made up through various funding sources such as federal transportation funds, Hennepin County taxes, and the state budget surplus.
“There’s a lot of ways to fund it,” he said.
He also addressed the crime concerns related to light rail, stating that crime reflects the neighborhoods through which the train is running, and he is not fearful that the train running through Eden Prairie will have the same crime as other places.
“It still needs to be confronted,” he said. “And, in fact, light rail has to deal with this and have more police officers on each car.”
He said Eden Prairie would face it, too.
“If we need to hire a specific strategically placed police officer around our train we will figure it out,” he said, noting the city has never had issues with SouthWest Metro buses traveling back and forth from Minneapolis in all the years it has provided that service.
“All you’re doing is changing the mode of transportation,” he said. “Anybody who wants to rob and steal in Eden Prairie can get in a car and drive out here.”
The mayor also discussed the importance of light rail as a solution for the shortage of employees in the city who are willing to work at wages of $17-$18 per hour and its potential impact on the city’s future.
“That’s why the Chamber of Commerce totally supported light rail,” he said.
Case said that the seven-county metro area is expected to see an additional one million residents by 2040. He acknowledges that current infrastructure, including roads, will be unable to sustain the increased traffic and that alternative forms of transportation will be necessary.
“I think people who are against it are being very short-sighted, and I understand the fear piece but they’re not using facts to base their fear,” he said. “And I don’t think they’re thinking of the future because all big government transportation projects for the last 100 years have been built for the next generation. They always are. So even when people say Minneapolis businesses are fleeing and LRT won’t be needed. We don’t know that for 2030 and 2040 and 2050, but my guess is it will badly be needed.”
(For more information on the subject, EPLN contributor Jeff Strate wrote an article titled “Light rail: A year in review” in December.)
During last November’s city council election, Case addressed the issue of affordable housing in the city, saying that some of the opponents’ views were short-sighted and lacked proper understanding of the issue.
He emphasized that the city council is not responsible for driving development but manages it through zoning and approval processes.
“We’re managing the growth that all [Eden Prairie] city councils have done since, you know, 1963 as we grew from 4,000 to what we are today,” he said.
Case said the housing market is currently driving the construction of new apartments due to a shortage of 20,000 units across the Twin Cities. He discussed the need for affordable housing in Eden Prairie and elsewhere in the state and how it affects individuals with “decent jobs making around $50,000-$60,000 a year.” He also highlighted how the lack of affordable housing could lead to homelessness.
“I’ve read you can’t even build fast enough across the Twin Cities,” he said. “Now we’re not trying to build more and our land is getting scarcer, so I’m guessing it slows down but we still have the Golden Triangle. We have that transit station up there which will be thriving. I think that will be a pretty exciting place for many, many people to live. We still have some infill and around the city, but not much. So, the apartment piece of it is the market where the city is driving some effort.”
He said the city has an inclusionary housing policy that requires developers to set aside a certain percentage of units as affordable or subsidized housing. These mandates typically range from 20-25% of units in a new development. To help developers meet these requirements, the city may assist with grants or tax increment financing.
“But again, the market drives whether that building comes here in the first place or gets proposed,” he said.
Noble Hill development
Case addressed the ongoing situation surrounding a proposed 50-home, 28-acre development called Noble Hill near the Minnesota River Bluffs and the historic Fredrick-Miller Spring in southwestern Eden Prairie.
The development, proposed by Pulte Homes of Minnesota, was granted zoning and plat approval by the Eden Prairie City Council in 2021. City officials argued that evidence showed that the development would not harm the spring or the nearby natural area.
However, opponents filed a lawsuit in June 2021, claiming that the city should have conducted more environmental studies before making a decision. The situation took a turn in January 2022 when Pulte Homes and the property owner mutually canceled the purchase agreement.
Case stated that according to the city’s processes and state legislative rules, once a development proposal is approved, the landowner holds the rights to the development, regardless of the developer that initially proposed it.
He said the city has not been notified of any new developer, and no permits have been submitted.
“It’s not tied only to the company that was at the time purchasing it,” he said. “So the [property owners]currently own the rights to that development process. Since Pulte has pulled out, they can take that approval to any other developer if they build the identical project.”
The plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit are now seeking to block any city permits for the project until an additional environmental review is completed. The jury trial for the civil lawsuit is scheduled for March, which will determine whether the city acted too hastily in its approval of the development.
“It’s our belief from the city perspective that the lawsuits are without merit,” Case said. “It’s our belief that they will not be sustained.”
Case stated that landowners have a right to develop their land, and it is the city’s responsibility to manage the process.
“So, in this case, the land either develops to its potential or the city buys it,” he said, noting the cost to the city would be high considering the possible purchase price.
Eden Prairie has acquired land in the past for preservation. The Prairie Bluffs (located just south of the spring) and Riley Creek conservation areas were obtained through a 1992 referendum. The Richard T. Anderson Conservation Area was obtained through a combination of park dedication fees, grants and land dedication.
Most city conservation areas are acquired through tax forfeiture procedures, developer dedication, or gifting of land.
“The idea that we would continue to purchase these small parcels of land that are formerly farmland just didn’t make good sense to me for the use of tax dollars,” Case said. “It didn’t add anything to our park system. We already fully protected the spring as much as some people don’t agree with that.”
Through the approved Noble Hill development plan, he said the city would receive eight additional acres of land for free to remain undeveloped, which would further safeguard the spring.
“We had done our due diligence [on the project], we had the facts, we had the experts,” Case said. “And so to make a decision at that point based on all the information we had, I stand by that decision today. It was a good decision for the city.”
Flying Cloud Airport’s long-term plan
Case does not expect any major surprises in the updated Flying Cloud Airport long-term plan for 2040 that is currently being worked on by the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC).
According to the MAC’s website, the update’s goal is to provide a roadmap to guide its development strategy and capital improvement planning for Flying Cloud Airport over the next 5-10 years. The planning process, initiated in mid-2021 and finalized in mid-2023, will evaluate when facility improvements may be needed to accommodate projected demand.
It is not intended to authorize any specific construction or improvement projects, though Case noted that MAC would like to build additional hangars at the airport. Instead, the website states it is designed to help MAC better understand the facility needs for the airport and plan for the future.
Case said MAC has proposed new ideas that might lead to the readjusting of the city’s Flying Cloud ballfields west of the airport. The ballfields are situated on MAC-owned land.
“Nothing I’ve heard has concerned me that the ballfields as we use them today are in danger,” he said. “I don’t think there will be any major surprises that will upset our future plans for recreational land use across the city. There might be some tweaks, but again, I’m not anticipating any major surprises.”
In November, Eden Prairie police announced that no charges would be filed, and the case is closed in the Aug. 22 suicide at Scheels that resulted in the death of a 19-year-old man and a lockdown of Eden Prairie Center mall.
The shooter had gone to the store’s second floor, where guns are sold and fled with a handgun. He loaded the handgun with ammunition he had brought and then shot himself in the store.
For a December story, EPLN reached out to Scheels for comment regarding the store’s policies and procedures that were followed on Aug. 22 and whether any changes have been made in how employees interact with customers who want to handle firearms before purchase. Store officials did not respond.
Case said the city does not control the store’s gun policies since current state and federal laws permit gun sales.
“What I have heard personally from Scheels — not at the high level but I’ve chatted with people at the store — is that they have really good policies and procedures in place,” he said. “They follow them precisely.”
Case said it is difficult to prevent such a tragedy without changes to laws and regulations at the federal level.
“And that’s frustrating to anyone who wants more regulated gun regulations across the U.S.,” he said. “But the gun regulation does need to occur I believe personally and I think has to occur at the federal and state level. But for now, I do think Scheels followed the proper procedures, with everything we can tell and everything that they did.”
Case commended the city’s police department for responding quickly and effectively to the situation.
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