Final Four weekend marks path to Minneapolis recovery

NCAA Women’s Final Four fans left town Monday after a resounding victory in South Carolina and a full weekend of activity that brought the party back to the streets of downtown Minneapolis.

“It was our opportunity, and we took advantage of it. It really came at the right time,” said Steve Cramer, CEO and chairman of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. “We are not only struggling to get out of COVID, but also the reputational impact” of the murder of George Floyd and its aftermath.

The multi-day event was seen as a chance for rejuvenation and reset for the city and the NCAA, which pledged to treat the women’s tournament with the same enthusiasm and money as the men after a video viral of the 2021 women’s tournament revealed a gaping disparity with men’s amenities.

Hometown hero Paige Bueckers’ Connecticut Huskies didn’t walk away with the championship trophy, but by most accounts, her hometown and her sport did well.

“I couldn’t have written it better,” said Wendy Blackshaw, CEO and president of Minnesota Sports and Events (MNSE), which hosted the Final Four weekend.

Blackshaw beamed over a weekend headline in The New York Times: “Minnesota, Mecca of Women’s Basketball, Has Its Moment.”

“It was a big deal because recent headlines have been tough for Minneapolis,” she said.

For much of the past two years, The Times’ reporting on Minneapolis has focused on tragedy: the killing of Floyd at the hands of police officers in May 2020, the trials of the four former officers, the killing of Daunte Wright by a Brooklyn Center in 2021 and the trial and sentencing of this officer.

But early last week, attention turned to women’s basketball as coaches and fans arrived for games, displays and celebrations. Visitors flocked to restaurants downtown, to the Tourney Town fan expo at the Minneapolis Convention Center and a Title IX event at the Mall of America. More than 36,000 fans flocked to Target Center for the three basketball games.

On Sunday morning, some 2,300 children and their parents dribbled NCAA-branded basketballs (which they had to keep) around the convention center in the traditional “Final Four Bounce.”

Sree Clayton, 11, of Atlanta, cradled one of these basketballs to her hip as she made her way to Target Center ahead of Sunday night’s game with her mother, Pasha. The Claytons focused on tournament play all weekend, but planned to hit the Mall of America before returning home on Monday.

“We kind of took a last-minute trip. She was supposed to play basketball this weekend, and it got called off,” Pasha Clayton said. “We’re both excited to see Paige play.”

Around 1,000 volunteers were on hand to welcome the expected 30,000 visitors to the city. Blackshaw said the MNSE will have the results of an economic impact study of the event in a few months. His organization, funded by private funds, did not disclose the cost of the event.

Cramer acknowledged the tournament was only part of the solution for Minneapolis, but said downtown hotels were full for the weekend. Reviews were mixed in restaurants and bars.

“It was our normal busy weekend in the North Loop,” said Josh Thoma, co-founder of the Smack Shack at 603 N. Washington Av. Thoma said he saw a small bump in traffic, but nothing appreciable.

“We’re seeing a bump for Twins traffic because we’re just down the street from Target Field,” he said. “We are looking forward to Thursday.”

That’s when the Twins’ home opener is scheduled, although the team could push the game to Friday if the weather turns bad. A year ago, the Twins were preparing for a home opener limited to 10,000 fans due to COVID-19. There are no such limits this year.

George Maus, manager of the MacKenzie Pub at 918 Hennepin Av., said the success of the Minnesota Timberwolves had brought strong business to the bar and he was looking forward to the Twins’ return. MacKenzie’s is close to Target Center and Target Field.

Said Maus of the business brought in by the Final Four: “Would I say it was great? No. Would I say it was great? Yes.”

Warmer weather will draw people to MacKenzie’s outdoor dining area, but Maus said the biggest factor will be the return of downtown employees who have worked from home during the pandemic for most of the past two years.

“Our lunches are really random,” he said. “We need more pedestrian traffic downtown.”

Cramer agreed that returning workers and weekday business trips are essential for bars, restaurants and hotels. He said the Final Four weekend was part of the “upward momentum” that shattered “overblown” misperceptions about downtown’s “safety and environment”.

Blackshaw said she hopes to announce more sporting events in the Twin Cities soon and thinks the Final Four will help justify the Minneapolis pick.

“Overall, it was the next step in healing and recovery,” she said.

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