“We don’t give a damn how they do it in Minneapolis-St. Paul!”: Chippewa Meadows
Radissonville legend had it that the Chippewa buried their dead beneath the soil of Chippewa Meadows. No one knew for sure of course, but in August of 2005, no one particularly cared. Aboriginal burial sites were a dime a dozen along Lake Superior because Indians had been living on these lands for 10,000 years. There were few acres anywhere in the area where Indians were not buried and, unlike the non-Native cultures who swept into the region starting in the 1630s, Natives did not have clearly defined graveyards which could be definitively identified four and a half centuries later. The only time an aboriginal burial mattered was when it appeared during excavation and held up construction for about a week while anthropologist sifted their way down and around the exposed bones.
The only thing that really mattered was who owned Chippewa Meadows. In primeval times it had been the property of the Chippewa, the easiest name for Minnesota non-Natives to say in 2005. It was all that was left of millions of acres that had once been owned exclusively by the Indians. That changed as, in progression, French trappers, English businessmen and American entrepreneurs moved into the area. The acres had been transferred by treaty, parceled out, stolen, bought, expropriated and inherited until all that remained of the aboriginal dominion were eight city blocks that had, miraculously, been retained by the descendants of the Chippewa who still held title.
Though the land may not have been worth much in 1630, by 2005 it was worth a king’s ransom. Or, more properly, a Chief’s ransom — and that was a lot of cowrie. It was in the center of town with nothing between it and the glistening waters of Lake Superior except the six acres of Saux Park, pronounced sox and named for the ancestral city in France from which the genealogy of the donator of the land had come. (The name of the park was a pun because the donator had been a Harvard-educated lawyer who was a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan.)
Chippewa Meadows had once been prime real estate but had gone from an upper middle-class neighborhood to working family district and then to “inner city tenements,” the last a euphemism for slum. Fire, snow, rising property taxes and wind off Lake Superior had combined to drive away most of the resident landowners. Low-income rentals, strings of shoulder-to-shoulder two-story townhouses and three HUD high rise tenements had supplanted the single-family homes. By 2005 the Radissonville Chippewa Native Trust was having so much problem collecting rents from the tenement residents it didn’t put much effort into chasing the decreasing amounts of cash. As rental income fell the apartments and tenements fell into disrepair and then decay. The Federally recognized tribal organization had been pestered for years to tear down the buildings and remove the debris but nothing had come of the demands. It came to be called Chippewa Meadows as a derogatory slam to the Indians who, like the decaying buildings, were disintegrating as a tribal entity.
But they still owned the land free and clear.
In disaster there is profit. Jason Sandborn saw both in Chippewa Meadows. He was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the first, reap the second and he was not slow in the taking. As Chairman of the powerful Minnesota State Senate Committee for Industrial Construction and Development he had long hungered for a legislative office building in the center of his district which, as it happened, encompassed all of the downtown area and the rest of Ojibwe County. A long-time Republican mover-and-shaker in Radissonville, he had business investments all along the north shore of Lake Superior from Radissonville to the Canadian border, west to Saginaw, East to Green Bay and south to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Coal, wood, copper, shipping, trucking, maritime salvage, land speculating, construction and banking, he had a finger in every pie before it ever went into the oven.
It was the right time because the old legislative office building was a relic of the Second World War. It was loaded with asbestos, PCBs, and was festooned with rot and mold both inside and outside its walls. It had not met code since the Vietnam War and the cost to upgrade it would have been more than the building was worth. It had to come down, hopefully by controlled dynamite explosions rather than of its own volition. It was only a matter of time before a new structure would have to be built and Jason Sandborn was going to make certain that the new structure was going to have his fingerprints — not to mention his name — all over it. Then the old legislative office building could go back to being the raw land it had been in the 1630s.
In Chippewa Meadows he saw both fame and fortune. He could build the new Legislative Office Building — which would be named in his honor — and he would shepherd — legally but steered still — the construction, transportation and banking contracts to companies in which he had a financial interest. Through Weetamoo Nanabozho, the Pocasset Wampanoag-Anishinaabe who was the ethnic consultant to MDJ Construction, one of the many companies in which Sandborn had financial ties, an arrangement with the Radissonville Chippewa Native Trust was consummated. The Trust agreed to lease the land to the State of Minnesota for 99 years exclusively through MDJ. This gave MDJ a lock on the construction work. As there was going to be no upfront cost for the purchase of the land, MDJ’s proposal would be millions lower than any competitor. It was a done deal before the RFP was even released.
MDJ also got a sweetheart deal on its construction loan from Radissonville Savings and Loan for two reasons. First, Sandborn was on its Board of Directors and, second, Sandborn had arranged for a profitable arrangement with a financial investment firm that allowed the bank to receive money which did not exist at well below market rate. The bank made money and the lower interest rate allowed MDJ to pocket moneys that should have been used to make interest payments on real money. The entire package was sweet. The State of Minnesota got a new legislative office building in Radissonville well below expected costs, MDJ got a three-year loan well below the market rate for construction companies from Radissonville Savings and Loan using money that did not exist, the Radissonville Chippewa Native Trust Chippewa got 99 years of lease payments after which they would own the land again, the labor unions got at least three years of Little Davis-Bacon wages and the business community was going to see about $200 million design and construction dollars run through its tills in 2005, 2006 and 2007 (plus the expected three years of cost overruns) — not to mention the 200 State of Minnesota employees who would be working in the Jason Sandborn Legislative Office Building for the next century. It was a most excellent deal all the way around with Jason Sandborn getting slices of the pie all the way around.
What could possibly go wrong?
[This short story is from Steven Levi’s “We Don’t Give a Damn How They Do It in Minneapolis-St. Paul!” available on Kindle.]