History meeting has people talking

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 20, 2001

When Karen Dooley moved to Albert Lea from New Jersey eight months ago, she was impressed by its historic buildings – but not by what she saw as an air of stagnation.

Friday, April 20, 2001

When Karen Dooley moved to Albert Lea from New Jersey eight months ago, she was impressed by its historic buildings – but not by what she saw as an air of stagnation.

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&uot;I thought, this county has incredible potential,&uot; Dooley said. &uot;I saw a lot of things I liked, but you kind of had to dust it off a little.&uot;

Dooley was among about 25 area residents who came to the historic Freeborn County Courthouse Thursday to hear about the preservation efforts of the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS), and to discuss ways to capitalize on local historic resources – especially a downtown area that’s already designated as a historic district.

Many of them said they hope to begin a drive to preserve and rehabilitate the area’s historic buildings. They got an encouraging yet sobering message from the historical society: Preservation can succeed, but it takes years of work, often with little initial reward.

&uot;This is not for the faint of heart,&uot; said Britta Bloomberg, the deputy state historic preservation officer for MHS. &uot;It often takes a very long lens to see the accumulation of the efforts of many, many people over time.&uot;

A vocal group of residents, however, just wanted to know how to get started.

&uot;Can you help us out?&uot; asked Tony Trow of Albert Lea. &uot;How do you deal with a small town with some malls that suck the retail traffic out of downtown? How do you turn this thing around?&uot;

Some expressed concern that getting use out of historic buildings while keeping them historic would be expensive; others wondered if there were any way to regulate historic properties within the city.

There were no easy answers.

&uot;It takes a real serious commitment at the local level,&uot; Bloomberg said. She suggested that preservation efforts could begin with a focus on one building or some other goal, then move on to more as momentum builds.

Bloomberg was sure of one thing: Albert Lea has a wealth of structures that can be considered historic. &uot;There are not many downtown historic districts with this caliber of buildings remaining,&uot; she said. &uot;You have a gem of a downtown.&uot;

Local preservationists signaled that they may be on the verge of organizing behind the cause. A sign-up sheet for residents interested in working on a preservation committee got 11 names.

&uot;Even if it’s just brainstorming, a very basic, short-term committee … we don’t know if it will happen in the future,&uot; said Bev Jackson, executive director of the Freeborn County Historical society.

One possible avenue for the group, if one is formed, is to lobby the city for the appointment of a historic preservation commission. Forty-six cities in Minnesota have ordinances creating such bodies, including nearby towns like Faribault, St. Peter and Lanesboro, Bloomberg said.

The commission could propose designating structures as local historic buildings, and work with the city council to draft new zoning regulations designed to protect the buildings. The commission’s recommendations would be subject to hearings and input from all interested parties.

Having a local preservation commission could open up the possibility of grants from MHS to pay for the considerable expense of consultants and planning, Bloomberg said.

But the idea had some people concerned about adding an extra level of government regulation.

&uot;It’s more government control,&uot; admitted Tim Glines, MHS manager of outreach services. &uot;It is, no doubt. But when you think of how our property system works in this country, we already have zoning laws … the reason it’s there is because the communities have decided it’s in everyone’s common interest.&uot;

Albert Lea Mayor Bob Haukoos, who attended the meeting, said the city council would consider a proposal if it were brought up, but expressed skepticism about adding a regulatory body.

&uot;We’d have to look it over good,&uot; he said. &uot;We have so many layers of government now, we’d have to look it over before adding another layer.&uot;

For now, preservationists will focus on getting something – anything – started. Thursday’s discussion, which ran an hour later than expected, was a good start, Jackson said.

&uot;This is wonderful,&uot; she said. &uot;It’s really great to see how this turned out.&uot;