The heart of the city: downtown

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 22, 2002

In downtown Albert Lea there are many shells of the past. The Lea Center building and the Vault are probably the most apparent of these, but just a walk downtown can open blind eyes to many vacant spaces above and tucked in between businesses along Broadway.

This downtown, the section of

Broadway from Main St. down to Water St., is one of the largest contiguous areas on the National Historic Register in the state.

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This history, paired with a growing concern over the lack of energy and steady commerce in the downtown has, for many years, been a topic of concern for many in the city. But, until this past year, little has been done about it.


Herb Anderson, owner of three Hallmark shops in Albert Lea, has run one of those stores in downtown since 1965. He described what downtown was like when he first moved in, its decline and the failure of the efforts of those first committed to downtown redevelopment

Anderson described downtown in the first years he was in business as a place with lots of commerce, traffic and energy. This energy began fading away soon thereafter, with the introduction of the mall, the story that followed is similar to stories downtowns throughout the nation faced at that time.

Anderson said the building of the Skyline Mall and then the Northbridge Mall took away from the downtown.

What was left was ‘mom and pop,’according to Anderson, who could not pay for the kind of improvements that would revitalize their buildings. Anderson explained that in the course of its downhill, some downtown business owners attempted to halt the decay, coming up with many ideas such as an enclosed mall for the downtown, but the lack of cohesiveness and strong leadership within the group caused the project to fall to the wayside.

“We hit our head against a brick wall,” he said. “People started going off and split the group. There was an idea here and another idea there. There were all kinds of ideas, but

there were on an

individual basis,&uot;

he said. &uot;There was no leadership, none at all,”


In the 1980s there was a movement to put the aforementioned section of downtown on the historic register. While the attempt was successful at putting buildings on that list, the wheels of progress were stopped when no historic preservation committee was formed.

Bev Jackson, curator of the Freeborn County Historical Society, said the lack of progress was due to a lack of effort and solidarity.

&uot;People were always asking ‘why isn’t anything happening?’ but the answer was that people weren’t making an organized effort,&uot; said Jackson.

Jackson said that progress downtown is also indicative of a larger scale problem.

&uot;There’s an unknown here when that has kept our city from utilizing

its natural assets, I’m not quite sure what that is, but it is

obvious that our community should have quite

a draw and it doesn’t,&uot; said Jackson. &uot; When you can say those same things for forty

years, you know that something is wrong.&uot;

Jackson said that, more specifically, the city government has been helpful with many projects in the downtown though she believes that there could definitely be more done.

Pointing to the lack of movement on any further historic preservation projects Jackson said, &uot;The city isn’t standing in the way, but they are certainly not out

there saying ‘what can we do to help?’&uot;


Randy Erdman, president of Destination Albert Lea (DAL), a group that formed from a common interest in downtown revitalization, said that the lack of a preservation committee has meant a lack of action on downtown projects.

“I think they should have formed the group back then when the historic district was adopted. It should have been done but it wasn’t,” he said. “I can’t tell you whose fault that is it just didn’t happen.”

Erdman and DAL focused their efforts in 2001 on getting a local half percent sales tax for downtown improvement projects as well as lake improvement projects.

Erdman said the city was very supportive of the project but that it never got through the state legislature. He said in general the city has been productive in the downtown, pointing to the efforts of trying to get buildings into the hands of developers.


In July of 2002 the city bought the Lea Center and sold it to a Twin Cities developer for a nominal price. Though the developer has not yet moved on the project, city officials say that the developing will begin next year.

The city also owns the Vault, on the corner of William St. and Broadway. They hope they it can sell that building for development as well.

City Manager Paul Sparks said the city has applied for $1.3 million in federal and state grants for improvement projects on these sites. But said the projects need matching funds or some other sort of matching funds in order to get many grants.

“The city doesn’t have the resources or legal right to go in and make changes to a building because we figure it needs to be done,” said Sparks. “These buildings are owned by private owners and these owners can do what they want with their property.”

While Sparks said the city will try to pursue a longer term goal of a downtown vision,

he said the projects will not be able to get off the ground without some sort of private funding.