County Manager Column from Nov. 30, 2021

Nine years after reopening, Union Depot continues connecting community

Since its reopening on Dec. 8, 2012 as a unique combination of active transportation hub and gathering place, we’ve hosted thousands of events at Union Depot – from corporate events and weddings to large community celebrations and festivals and even public meetings. In this time, both then-President Obama and then-Vice President Biden chose Union Depot as a Twin Cities location to deliver speeches about the importance of investment in infrastructure and transportation. And every year at this time, a season of excitement revs up at Union Depot with the kickoff of popular Hub for the Holidays events.

Hub for the Holidays

Last Friday, Minnesota’s only authentic outdoor Christmas Market began its four-weekend run through Dec. 19. This coming Saturday features the annual ceremonial lighting of the holiday tree – donated this year by the Miller family of Shoreview. Throughout the rest of December, visitors and families will have opportunities to board the “North Pole Express” Holiday Train, pick up some festive treats at the annual holiday bake sale and check out movie nights.

View the 2021 Hub for the Holidays events schedule

Proposed budget and tax public hearing

Maybe not quite as illustrious as a presidential visit or as fun as a "Frozen II" movie night, but nonetheless an important community event - last night we held the annual budget and property tax hearing (also known as “Truth in Taxation”) both virtually and safely in person in Union Depot’s Red Cap Room.

The public hearing is a key step in our budget process as an opportunity for residents and property owners to provide public testimony about the proposed budget and property tax levy as commissioners deliberate the 2022-23 budget proposal leading to their vote on Dec. 21 this year. About three dozen Ramsey County residents and property owners were at the hearing this year – split about evenly between in-person and virtual attendance.

Following a pre-hearing screening of informational videos on the proposed budget that I presented to the board in August and “Understanding your Property Taxes and Values” that we produced last year, Chair Carter opened the hearing. She started by bringing us back to last November’s meeting where she announced that the board and county leadership adjusted a planned 2021 property tax levy increase of 4.5% that had been approved before the pandemic to 0% in response to the difficulties our families and businesses were experiencing then and have continued to experience throughout 2021.

Pivoting to the proposed budget for 2022, Chair Carter explained how we are again balancing services with the ability to pay for them in a challenging environment – leveraging federal dollars and proposing a property tax levy increase of 1.55% for the county. This compares with a statewide average increase of 3.7% among Minnesota’s 87 counties in 2022 - per capita, that’s $613 per Ramsey County resident versus a statewide average of $634.

A critical aspect of all of our work that each Truth in Taxation hearing brings forward is that every property owner experiences tax adjustments uniquely – whether a senior on a fixed income, an apartment owner facing the prospect of increasing rent for their tenants, or those whose property values (but also property taxes) have significantly increased due to improvements in market conditions. Part of our role at this hearing is to provide ways to help explain the factors that can lead to significant year-over-year changes in values and taxes. Staff from the Assessor’s Office were available both via phone and in person at Union Depot to assist attendees throughout the hearing. We also share information on relief available to qualifying property owners in the form of property tax refunds through the state. We’ll be posting video and other materials from the hearing in the days ahead at ramseycounty.us/budget.

See all 2022-23 proposed budget materials

The east metro’s transportation connector

At the heart of its place as the community connector for the east metro is transportation. The Twin Cities’ busiest transit route, the METRO Green Line, stops just outside the front doors providing a frequent light-rail connection between Saint Paul, the U of M and Minneapolis and neighborhoods in between. Hundreds of bus trips are provided by Metro Transit and Minnesota Valley Transit Authority each weekday connecting Saint Paul and suburban communities. Amtrak’s Empire Builder offers rail service to Chicago, Seattle, Portland and points between. Jefferson LinesGreyhound and Megabus together offer dozens of daily coach bus departures to cities throughout the Midwest. Affordable short- and long-term parking is available at Union Depot as well as car rentals, excellent connections to regional trails and bicycle storage.

Forthcoming projects to expand transit access in the east metro all passed milestones in this past year as well.

The environmental process for the newly-named METRO Purple Line (formerly Rush Line) bus rapid transit project was completed with the Federal Transit Administration’s blessing last month. The proposed 15-mile transit route with stations between Union Depot and downtown White Bear Lake will connect people to jobs, education, health care and recreation destinations while supporting economic development along the corridor. Expected to begin service in 2026, the project is currently being transitioned to the Metropolitan Council to complete planning and construction prior to operation.

METRO Gold Line bus rapid transit remains on track to begin service in 2025 following Federal Transit Administration approval for the project to begin engineering work earlier this year. The planned 10-mile route between Woodbury and Saint Paul will serve Union Depot and features bus-only lanes being constructed generally north of and near I-94 providing connections to jobs, education, health care and recreation along the corridor.

The Riverview Corridor modern streetcar project, a 12-mile planned transportation connection between Union Depot, neighborhoods and anchor destinations and employers in downtown Saint Paul, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America also continues rolling ahead. Following the project’s entrance into the engineering and pre-environmental phase in late 2020, new advisory committees began meeting in 2021. A current focus is community engagement around station area planning (currently focused on West 7th at St. Clair, Randolph and Otto avenues), cultural resources and historic features along the corridor.

Nine years on in this chapter of its rich history, Union Depot continues to be a connector for community in diverse and important ways. Whether you’re interested in gatherings and events, transportation and travel, architecture and public art or all of the above and more, Union Depot is always great place to visit – and keep visiting.