The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

City Insight: Minneapolis


TRAVELING UPSTREAM, ONE GETS CLOSER to the source, both literally and metaphorically. 300 river miles from Lake Itasca, the source of America’s river, the Mississippi, Minneapolis is in a way the city furthest upstream on the American land. A quick look at the corporate headquarters of this city is an interesting and illuminating reflection of some of the sources of contemporary American culture and economics.

Mill Ruins Park, Minneapolis
At Mill Ruins Park, Minneapolis has embraced the ruins at its core, like an American Rome. CLUI photo

Mill Ruins Park is at the historic heart of Minneapolis, and a good place to get a sense of the city’s reason for being where it is. It is a collection of partially rebuilt ruins of mills and constructed waterways, from the 19th century, which made this the flour milling capital for the vast wheat fields of the Upper Midwest. Located at a natural waterfall, St. Anthony’s Falls, the waterworks here were first developed to operate saw mills, processing lumber cut from the virgin timberlands of the Midwest, and floated down the river. As trees were cleared away, grain was planted in the fields, transitioning the regional economy to agriculture and food processing. Visible from the park on both sides of the Mississippi River are grain silos and plants, some belonging to companies that emerged in this era which still dominate the food industry today, like General Mills and Pillsbury.

Cargill's suburban Minneapolis corporate campus in Minnetonka
Cargill's suburban Minneapolis corporate campus in Minnetonka. CLUI photo

It is in the suburbs, however, where you find the modern behemoth that is the legacy of Minneapolis’ food production: Cargill. Cargill is a company of superlatives, and a company with many unique qualities. It is one of the largest food companies in the world; the nation’s largest grain trader; and the world’s largest privately held corporation. 90,000 employees work at hundreds of processing plants for various food and feed products, scattered all over the nation and in over 50 other countries. Subsidiaries of Cargill include Excel, one of the largest meat packing and processing companies in the world, Cargill Steel, which operates 19 steel plants in the United States, and Cargill Salt, one of the largest salt producers in the country. The corporate campus is in a pastoral suburban setting outside Minneapolis, near housing developments and a lake.

Target's HQ in downtown Minneapolis
Target's HQ in the bulls-eye of downtown Minneapolis. CLUI photo

Even though it is way up here near Canada and the Dakotas, the twin cities area is rife with large American company headquarters: 3M, Land O’Lakes, Northwest Airlines, and U.S. Bancorp. Minneapolis may in fact be the nidus of suburban American retail. One of the largest retailers in the world, Target, has its headquarters in downtown Minneapolis, in a skyscraper on the urban revitalized pedestrian walkway known as the Nicolette Mall. The company has over 1,500 big box stores in 47 states, including one just down the mall from its headquarters. The corporate headquarters for the Best Buy Company is located on a beltway south of Minneapolis. Best Buy is one of the nation’s largest consumer electronic retailers, with over 1,100 stores worldwide. In the southern suburb of Edina is the somewhat updated Southdale Mall, originally built in 1956, as the world’s first fully enclosed two-level shopping center. It has been upstaged considerably by the Mall of America, one of the largest malls in the world, also located in the southern suburbs of Minneapolis.

 ATK HQ in Minneapolis suburbs
ATK HQ in Minneapolis suburbs. CLUI photo

But perhaps the most surprising company headquarters in Minneapolis is in a nondescript office building on the highway, not too far from the Southdale Mall. This is the corporate headquarters for ATK, a military products company that specializes in the full range of projectiles, from bullets to ballistic missiles. Also known as Alliant Tech Systems, they are the nation’s largest manufacturer of rocket motors, used to propel ground-based missiles, as well as space entry and re-entry vehicles (like ICBMs). Their plant in Missouri makes more than 95% of the bullets used by the defense department in war, and in peace. They do not have any major production facilities in Minneapolis anymore, they owe their existence here to the fact that they once operated at the Twin Cities Ammunition Plant. Now closed and undergoing remediation (though more than half of the property remains in use by the National Guard) the plant produced small arms munitions, such as rockets and mortars, and billions upon billions of bullets from WWII to Vietnam.