Grant could aid downtown revitalization

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 6, 2002

The city will pursue a $1.2 million grant that could help redevelop a block-long stretch of William Street in downtown Albert Lea. The project includes the purchase of the largely vacant Lea Center building, and the city council will consider approving that $350,000 transaction Monday.

The grant, through the Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development (DTED), would provide the funds over a three-year period. The city could use the money to help recoup the cost of buying Lea Center &045; which it plans to resell to a development company for $1 &045; and pay for other improvements like more parking, buried utility lines and other measures to make the area more attractive to developers, said City Manager Paul Sparks.

Coupled with the city’s ownership of the &uot;Vault&uot;building on the corner of William and Broadway Avenue, the Lea Center transaction and other work in the area could help revitalize the area along William Street between Broadway and Newton Avenue, Sparks said.

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The council will act on the grant application Monday.

&uot;The state is very interested in this project and in putting some money into our downtown,&uot; Sparks said.

Historically, the DTED grants aren’t commonly used for downtown projects. Past grants in Albert Lea have helped foster development for what was then called Farmstead, as well as what was then called Freeborn Foods &045; both industrial projects.

But in recent years, DTED has become more friendly toward projects that include housing, and the developer interested in Lea Center plans to turn most of the building into apartments, Sparks said. The state may also be more interested in Albert Lea because of its increased need in the aftermath of last year’s Farmland fire, which took around 500 jobs out of the economy, he said.

Under the deal to be considered Monday, the city would buy Lea Center, then turn it over to Metro Plains, an established redevelopment company with a history of projects around the Midwest, Sparks said. As part of the contract, the city would require the company to spend a certain amount of money on redeveloping the property. If the company does not meet its obligations, the city would keep the building.

The company plans to turn four or five floors of the six-floor building into residences and use the last floor for commercial tenants.

But as the Lea Center project moves forward, the city’s efforts across the street may have hit a snag. The city agreed two weeks ago to buy the Hanson Building, next to the Vault, for $150,000, planning to demolish it to make way for parking. But the owner has not signed the purchase agreement and may decide to ask for more money, Sparks said.

The building now contains apartments and some commercial businesses.

&uot;It’s disappointing,&uot; he said. &uot;We’ve tried working with them before, and I thought this time everything was going to work out.&uot;

If the building’s owner does not agree to the purchase, the city could eventually decide to condemn the building and take it through legal proceedings, Sparks said, but that would be a last resort.