Bringing downtown back to life

KIMT News 3 — Many decades ago running errands likely meant you were headed downtown. Then came an influx of shopping malls and department stores building in the outskirts of town. Downtowns became forgotten and began to fall apart.

Now, there is a push to bring them back to life.

The look of the typical downtown is not what it was 50 years ago.

“In Rochester, all of the department stores were downtown at one time, Sears, Penney’s, Ward’s, Dayton’s and they all moved out to the mall and downtown went through a period of 20 years or so where very little happened,” said Rochester Development Administrator Doug Knott.

Unlike most cities that may not have recovered from that, Rochester’s downtown is home to Minnesota’s largest private employer, the Mayo Clinic.

“We’re fortunate in that we had Mayo Clinic here and I think the growth and expansion of the downtown has pretty much matched the growth and expansion of Mayo Clinic,” Knott said.

The city of Rochester has grown drastically over the last half century and much of that can be credited to Mayo and the downtown.

According to the U.S. Decennial Census, in 1960, Rochester had a population of 40,663. By 1990 they had 70,745 thousand people call the Med City home. Now, 108,992 people live there (2012 est.), making it the third largest city in the state.

The city wants to keep people coming.

“We can build the parking garages, we can build the skyways, we can put all of the infrastructure in place that people need if they’re going to be downtown. Our strong suit is not creating that experience,” Knott said.

So many cities like Rochester are creating a department whose job is strictly bringing people to the downtown. That includes towns like Mason City, who are about a quarter of the size.

“We bring 3,000 people downtown for Friday Night Live. They may not shop that night, but they’re down here and they’re getting used to coming down here and they see a window display and they come back the next day or the next week and purchase something,” said Jodee O’Brien, Executive Director of Main Street Mason City.

It is important for cities to hold these events because the latest trend is living in the heart of the town they call home.

“You’re seeing a lot more young people and they want to come back and they want to live downtown to get that urban feel and we have that urban feel without the cost of living that you might have in a larger community,” O’Brien said.

That is causing a push for a facelift to some of the brick and mortar.

“Upper floor housing has been a thing and I know in 2014 that’s something that Main Street Iowa is going to be working with hopefully having some grant money available,” O’Brien said.

Whether or not it is through grants or taxpayer dollars, local communities are making sure their downtowns are the focus of their investments.

“A lot of economists and community developers often times view the success of the community by the vitality of the downtown, so we really have kind of bought into that and feel that we need to invest in the downtown,” said Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams.

That is exactly what they did. Albert Lea stuck more than $4 million into the streets and other infrastructure to their downtown over the summer.

“We were in the situation where we had to replace some long-time, very old infrastructure underneath the street, so we saw it as an opportune time to create a destination point and that’s been a goal in the community for quite a while to create our downtown again as a destination area,” Adams said.

Like Rochester and Mason City, Albert Lea knows events are important for those who live their towns. They also know that they can be beneficial to the local economies.

“A lot of the community residents are attending those and businesses are backing those and we’re starting to see people come in from other communities as well. So we see it as a regional center, we want to draw more people into Albert Lea from outside of Albert Lea,” Adams said.

The other challenge that these towns face is keeping the history of the downtowns in place through old buildings or monuments. Albert Lea recently stuck millions of dollars into the historic Freeborn Bank building even though it has been empty for decades.

It could soon be paying off since some suitors have come forward. The city expects to pick one of them at the end of the month.

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