DEED Commissioner Steve Grove plays hardball with Hilton after contentious call

The former general manager of the Minneapolis Hilton was critical of Walz pandemic reopening steps

By: - April 27, 2022 6:00 am
steve grove

Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove in March 2020. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

During the worst of the pandemic in the middle of the winter of 2021, a manager of a Hilton hotel had pointed criticisms for Steve Grove, who serves as Gov. Tim Walz’s commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development. 

Grove sparred with Kenneth Jarka, the general manager of the Hilton Minneapolis — during a conference call that involved administration and business leaders  — about the pace of easing of pandemic restrictions, which were pummeling many hospitality businesses. 

Grove responded by canceling a visit to the Hilton Minneapolis.

“Your hostile behavior on our recent large venues calls is entirely unproductive, unprofessional, and unfair to other participants. It also reflects poorly on the Hilton brand,” Grove wrote to Jarka on Feb. 12, 2021. 

“I’m afraid we can no longer welcome you to our large venue roundtable calls moving forward, as it is not leading to productive conversations. Needless to say, I also won’t be visiting your hotel in any site tour we may schedule,” Grove said in an email obtained by the Reformer as part of a public records request that DEED took more than a year to fulfill.  

Grove and other state officials followed through on the promise, instead visiting the Hyatt Regency and the Minneapolis Convention Center about two weeks later. “After that exchange, it just didn’t merit the Hilton being a part of that visit,” Grove said in a recent interview.

The episode shows a behind-the-scenes look at how a prominent figure in Walz’s cabinet — who still hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate after more than three years on the job — handled dissent over the administration’s pandemic response.  

Grove, who’s been a key bridge between the Walz administration and the business community, defended his handling of the incident and the follow-up cancellation of the site visit by DEED. “We needed to cool off a little bit,” Grove said. “We made the decision to add a different hotel to that particular tour, again this is about one particular tour, and we stood by that.” 

“Ken Jarka, who was representing Hilton on the call, was not happy with the moves that we had made and he engaged in a lot of questioning that ultimately was unproductive in that he was talking over me,” Grove said, adding that there were dozens of others in the large venue roundtable. “It sort of shut the call down.”

A Feb. 12, 2021 email DEED Commissioner Steve Grove sent to the former general manager of the Hilton Minneapolis over a contentious call.

DEED was the lead agency communicating with hundreds of businesses affected by Walz’s executive orders over many months during the height of the pandemic. The Walz administration’s pandemic restrictions were often met by strong pushback by Republicans and some parts of the business community. Some Minnesota businesses ignored restrictions over ideological differences and faced steep fines.  

State Senate and House Republicans, in particular, had pushed the administration for greater clarity around when restrictions would end, given varying approaches to conducting business during COVID-19 surges by all 50 state governors.  

House Republicans familiar with the DEED roundtable calls criticized Grove’s actions in response to Jarka’s comments.

“(Jarka’s) questions were absolutely pointed, but they were also respectful and reasonable,” said House Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, who wasn’t on the call but was informed about it at the time. “The idea that the administration would exact retribution on someone for not just toeing the line is just absolutely wildly inappropriate.”

Grove is a former Google and YouTube executive who was appointed DEED commissioner in 2019. 

He said the call was one of hundreds over the course of the pandemic. 

“It was a call oriented around sharing information on an executive order that was opening up more activity in the business sector,” Grove said. “It was a cautious lift,” he said of the move to begin reopening. 

Others who were on the call told the Reformer both the agency and businesses affected by the pandemic were under tremendous stress, so it is understandable if tempers flared. 

One said he didn’t recall the incident rising to the level of hostility characterized by Grove, and another said the exchange was brief and over quickly. 

Still, it left some other state officials on the call frustrated at Jarka. 

Officials from the Departments of Health and Labor and Industry expressed misgivings about holding the site visit at the Hilton.

“Please tell him with all due respect, over my dead body will I be going to the Hilton after that behavior today,” said Laura Oliven, an official with Minnesota Health Department’s COVID-19 response, said in feedback shared by email with Grove. 

A Department of Health spokesman said the agency would not have any comment.

DEED has been at the center of the state’s economic response to COVID-19, helping businesses and unemployed Minnesotans alike to understand the restrictions and distribute billions of dollars in state aid. Grove argued his agency should be judged on its performance — rather than one call out of hundreds conducted throughout the pandemic. 

Salut Bar Americain in Edina, as pictured on May 20, 2020, was one of many Minnesota restaurants closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer

The email was part of dozens of communications over a two-day period when Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order on Feb. 13, 2021 easing some restrictions on restaurants, indoor entertainment venues and private parties and celebrations. The Reformer filed the records request on Feb. 14, 2021 and received some of the data late last month. 

Initially, records related to the contentious call were not part of the records released. They were provided after the Reformer followed up to ask why they were missing. A DEED attorney attributed their exclusion due to a “technical error.”

The agency also later provided a copy of a Feb. 16, 2021 apology that Jarka e-mailed to Grove a few days after the contentious call. 

“I am writing to extend my sincere apologies to you, as well as to the broader Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, for my impassioned comments on our recent large venues call,” Jarka wrote.  

He added: “This crisis has disproportionately impacted our employees, businesses and the value we hope to continue bringing to Minnesota. My emotions are admittedly elevated, as Minneapolis hotel revenues are down 79 percent year over year, and many of our local hotels are experiencing cancellations well into the fourth quarter — as clients are finding alternative solutions for their meeting and event needs that are outside of our city and state.”

He argued that a phased plan “with reopening allowances rooted in, and initiated by, science-guided thresholds — is the most efficient way to safely bring business back,” according to his email.

Jarka, who won recognition as Hilton general manager of the year in 2019, is now general manager of a Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C. He is also past president of the Greater Minneapolis Hotel Association.

Reached by email, Jarka declined to comment about the call and the fallout. 

Site visits to businesses from high-ranking state officials, including the governor, serve several purposes: It’s a way for a gubernatorial administration to convey its message, seek input and feedback from businesses and give the business media exposure. 

But it does not seem the Hilton Minneapolis will receive a DEED visit anytime soon.

Despite the apology, the agency has not since conducted a site visit at the hotel.  

Grove has visited other Hilton hotels, however.

“This isolated incident with Ken Jarka had no bearing on any business relationship between the state of Minnesota and the Hilton hotel,” a DEED spokesperson said, noting the visit was intended to learn about the hotel industry’s needs during the pandemic and had no relation to DEED funding or other agency business.

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