Louis Jambois had his work cut out for him when he took over the St. Paul Port Authority, the city’s main industrial development group, at the height of the financial crisis.
Now, staring down his February retirement, the agency’s board has launched an extensive search process and staffers have openly lamented the changing of the guard. Jambois, 62, has steered a series of high-profile redevelopments, including the overhaul of a defunct 3M Co. campus on the east side and the ongoing push to fill a shuttered downtown Macy’s store with new tenants as diverse as a drug store and the Minnesota Wild.
During Jambois’ seven-year run, he has helped define the Port Authority as a key force in St. Paul redevelopment and commerce on the Mississippi River, and carved out a more prominent place for the agency at City Hall and in the community.
In addition, he helped resolve a messy legal battle over Port Authority bonds whose value plummeted in a late-1980s real estate bust. The scandal stung the agency’s reputation in the media and among developers, but Jambois set out to fix it.
He set the tone of his tenure with a new motto: “We do not suck.” The phrase is featuredaround the agency’s office, plastered on coffee mugs next to Port Authority logos. To Jambois, it’s a helpful reminder of the agency’s potential and its value.
“I’ve been told by some members of our Port Authority board that I could be more aspirational,” he said. “But it’s going OK.”
Jambois sat down this month with Finance & Commerce (a sister publication of Capitol Report) for a Q&A, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Q: How has the Port Authority evolved over the past several years during your tenure?
A: I was succeeding a person who had been here for over 18 years. Because I represented major change, we needed to get a little introspective.
While we were out there working on the redevelopment mission of the Port Authority, it was time to figure out who and what we were as an organization and where we wanted to go.
Our vision is to be a preeminent economic development entity. Our mission is to create quality job opportunities, enhance the tax base and foster sustainable development. Our core values are collaboration, innovation, integrity and risk-taking.
Q: A lot has changed in terms of how St. Paul and other cities in the Twin Cities metro view industrial development and the benefits that can come with it. How close are we to a reality where that type of use is fully integrated, the way you want it to be?
A: We’re a lot closer than we were in 2009. We’re not where we need to be. It’s work that I don’t think we’ll ever be able to say we’ve finished and claimed success.
It’s not about one type of development as opposed to others. It’s about land use balance that creates a sustainable community from a fiscal perspective and from a jobs and economic perspective, which then becomes a sustainable community from a social perspective as well.
Q: What do you see as your biggest or most important accomplishments during your time at the Port Authority?
A: One is that we continued working on redevelopment and took some risks even when the economy was down, and those have all paid off. We did not retrench. We kept moving forward.
The second thing was an outreach campaign. We were not going to be able to continue to do this kind of work if the general population in St. Paul and the people they elected didn’t support it. We needed to get out and educate folks.
The third piece is introspective. When I showed up we were in the throes of 10 years of litigation over a revenue bond program. It had a big impact financially but also psychologically inside the organization, and from a reputational perspective.
We put together a settlement the bondholders accepted. We’re slowly shedding that negativity.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in this position?
A: The greatest challenge probably was the organization’s past. But some of the things the organization was doing that I inherited — the land acquisition, brownfield cleanup work — were excellent.
It was easier than it might have otherwise been to take on challenges from the past because of the commitment, energy and skill of the Port Authority’s staff.
Q: When you think about the past as a challenge, what are the things that have changed to make the Port Authority more effective?
A: First, we believe in ourselves. Second, we believe in the city of St. Paul and the promise that it has. We believe in the leadership in St. Paul and the know-how. We think about it as a canvas. If we’re painting on a canvas, the city of St. Paul is a great canvas to painton right now.
Minnesotans are terrible at going out and talking about how great we are, but if we beat the drum just a little bit, we’re going to do really well.
Q: What is left undone that you’d hoped to tackle, and what do you hope your successor tackles?
A: We need out of the state and federal government a land assembly program where we can buy multiple small parcels and assemble that land. When we have enough of those parcels, we can do the demolition and cleanup work, install infrastructure and sell the business development.
The Port Authority needs to look at what else is going in St. Paul and the region, and determine where our specialized transactional experience can assist.
If we need to expand our horizons on the kinds of development we do to achieve our mission, then we should do that. We should evolve as the region evolves.
Q: Where do you feel St. Paul is ripest for development?
A: The areas closest to Minneapolis are the strongest markets. The West Midway area absolutely has great potential for redevelopment. The West Side is great. The East Side is making an enormous comeback. The Central Corridor is plugging along — the promise that light rail would help stimulate redevelopment and economic development is true.
I think the next place to focus our attention is the North End. That’s where we need some land assembly assistance.
A: Industrial to be sure and certainly professional-office stuff. If in fact there is a larger retail play, OK.
St. Paul is absolutely a medical services and medical device business cluster so we want to take advantage of that. But development types can get so focused on business clusters that maybe an opportunity shows up and we miss it. We can never be blind to an opportunity to that lands on our doorstep.
The working [Mississippi] river is also a big deal for us. The Port for a long time turned its back on the river, but it’s important to economic diversity and the tax base.
Q: What do you hope others see as your legacy when you leave in February?
A: That the city of St. Paul is better off for having a Port Authority.
Hopefully one of the legacies is that people have gotten to know our Port Authority staff, that we haven’t hidden behind a curtain but instead have gotten out into the community and we’re all pulling in the same direction.
Q: Do you plan to stay involved in St. Paul development?
A: That’s a damn good question. The truth of the matter is, I don’t know. I’ve never been retired before. This is going to be a different reality and I don’t know that I’ve prepared myself for it.
I’ve been told by many who know me better than I know myself that I won’t be able to shut up and go away. We’ll see.
Current job: President, St. Paul Port Authority, 2008-2016
Previous job: Executive director, Metro Cities
Education: B.S., park and recreation resource management, Minnesota State University-Mankato; M.A., urban and regional studies, Minnesota State University-Mankato
Family: Wife, Carol, and daughters Danielle and Marie
First thing he’ll do after he retires: Sleep in