Panel to consider King street name

by Elizabeth Putnam

Whitaker Buick and Jeep has been on University Avenue in St. Paul for 47 years.

The prominent location alone has brought in customers’ business for decades, said Steve Whitaker, second-generation owner.

But if the St. Paul City Council votes to change the name of the street to honor Martin Luther King Jr., Whitaker said business could dwindle.

“Drawing in new customers would be more difficult,” Whitaker said. “You wouldn’t be able to say ‘that business on Martin Luther King’ and have the customers know automatically where that is.”

University Avenue is one of several streets in St. Paul being considered for the name change.

The debate has been brewing since late January when St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly proposed renaming a road after the assassinated civil rights leader.

More than 500 streets in America are named after King. Currently, no street in the metro area bears the name.

The council approved establishment of a panel Wednesday that will determine three possible street choices for the name change. The panel must declare its suggestions to the council within 60 days, at which point Kelly and the council will make a final decision.

The mayor and council members will appoint the nine-person panel, said council member Jerry Blakey.

The city has not yet determined how much the name change will cost, said Laura Mortenson, Kelly’s spokeswoman.

Johnny Howard, executive director of the Thomas-Dale Block Club, said University Avenue is an ideal choice because it stretches through a number of cities.

“The street would be in a portion of a variety of communities,” Howard said. “Everyday people can walk on the street in the spirit of King.”

Because city government would approve the name change, it would only apply to the part of University Avenue in St. Paul. Minneapolis City Council member Barb Johnson said changing a street name in Minneapolis to honor King has not been suggested.

Howard said there isn’t significance in the name “University” and said the economic impact on University Avenue businesses wouldn’t be substantial.

“No matter where (panel members) choose, businesses will be impacted,” Howard said. “They could fade the name in slowly.”

Ellen Watters, president of the Midway Chamber of Commerce, opposes changing University Avenue’s name because of the effect it would have on over 500 businesses in St. Paul. Watters said more businesses have a University Avenue address than any other street in the city.

“There would be a significant cost for these businesses to redo stationary, business cards and catalogs,” Watters said.

She said the change would confuse consumers because University Avenue would keep its name in Minneapolis, altering the name of the avenue midway.

Watters and Blakey support Kelly’s suggestion of renaming Cedar Street because they want a significant amount of passersby to see the name Martin Luther King.

“It’s close to downtown and leads up to the Capitol,” Watters said. “Those on the freeway bypass would be able to see it too.”

Some residents have criticized renaming Cedar Street because it is one of the oldest streets in St. Paul.

Other suggestions include Interstate 94, Marshall Avenue and Phalen Drive.

Elizabeth Putnam welcomes comments at [email protected]