City investing more into downtown project

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 11, 2002

This next spring Albert Lea will probably see the most dramatic changes it has since Farmland foods burned. This time, though, the changes will be positive.

Demolition of the old plant is supposed to be finished by May.

&uot;For the first time in a long time you will be able to see both lakes from the downtown,&uot; Paul Sparks said at a community meeting last week on economic development. &uot;It should be a very dramatic change.&uot;

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Dramatic change could be the word of 2003, if things go well for the city government and Lea Center developer, Metro Plains, who hopes to turn the building into moderate income housing.

Both the city and Metro Plains have applied for money to use toward downtown redevelopment. The city will turn in a grant application for $650,000 for redevelopment projects in early January.

&uot;Metro Plains was encouraged by the state to apply in the spring for loans,&uot; Sparks said.

The city set aside $330,000

to go toward these projects at Monday’s city council meeting. If the city’s grant is approved, the total funds for redevelopment plans would near $1 million.

&uot;The specifics of how we will use this money have not been worked out yet,&uot; Sparks said, but he added that the city does have a rough vision of how it will approach things.

The focus on redevelopment will be on four buildings and the sidewalk and parking space surrounding those areas.

The area is encompassed in the two-block space between Clark and Main streets and Newton and Broadway avenues. The city currently owns the old Freeborn Bank building (the Vault) and the One-Hour Martinizing building.

Sparks said the city hopes to buy the Hanson building, directly east of the Vault and tear it and the Martinizng building down to make room for parking. They would also take out the alleyways on both blocks and put the utility wires underground.

&uot;It will be a wide open area then for us to work with,&uot; Sparks said. &uot;We can then landscape the area, using shrubbery, trees, benches to make a ‘people area.’&uot;

Tearing down the Hanson building is not possible yet because the city doesn’t own the property, but Sparks said they are pursuing that possibility currently.

With the parking that would be created in that space, Sparks said the city will be able to market the Vault building to developers more easily. He said the city would also try to take care of any major problems with the building in order to further entice interested parties.

&uot;We want to make it so that investors can put positive money into the project instead of having to fix up problems,&uot; Sparks said. &uot;If we can make it so that the building is as ready for new construction and development as we can, then we’ve done our job.&uot;

Sparks expects the downtown redevelopment parking and street projects to start in the spring if the money is allocated. He said Metro Plains could start in on their $5.5 million renovation project at Lea Center as early as next summer.

The marketing of the Vault will start as soon as the Hanson building comes down, assuming that happens, he said.

Overall, downtown could look like a very different place as these projects progress over the next few months and years.

Sparks warned that the projects don’t happen overnight, but he hopes that by pursuing them at the moment, the city can get a start on their projects which may encourage private building owners to do the same.

The process of redevelopment is hard because a city can’t force a private building owner to do anything, Sparks said. But with their own projects, the city can help to give the owners more reason to do so.

Sparks said that while the investment that the city is making into these projects is large, he thinks the end result will be worth it.

&uot;Redevelopment is expensive, more so than building new,&uot; Sparks said. &uot;But, if it’s done well, it’s much more rewarding.&uot;