Column: It is time to build on the vacant Farmland site

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 12, 2007

By Holly Bohlen, Guest Column

I&8217;m sure many of us remember the summer day in July 2001 when Farmland Foods burned down. I remember being at my house and hearing the sound of sirens coming from every direction.

I got in the car with my family and we drove toward the commotion. When we arrived at the scene I saw huge red and orange flames shooting out from every direction of the Farmland Foods building. I stood in disbelief, as I watched the plant burn down.

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Over the years I have watched as very little production was made on the site. The lot where Farmland Foods once stood has been vacant for a little more than six years now. It is time for us to move forward and fill the empty lot by putting a recreation center and riverwalk on the site, so that every time we drive by the lot we don&8217;t have to be reminded of that sad July day.

In a personal e-mail from Susie Petersen, executive director of Albert Lea Convention and Visitors Bureau, I asked her if she thought Albert Lea was losing tourism. She said that she doesn&8217;t think Albert Lea is losing tourism because Albert Lea promotes many events like RV rallies, Eddie Cochran Weekend, Festival of Bands and much more, which bring great amounts of tourism into Albert Lea.

If you think about it, the time when Albert Lea has the greatest amounts of tourism is during the summer. Although Albert Lea brings a great amount of tourism into the town during the summer, putting a recreation center and riverwalk on the land will provide a year-round opportunity for tourism in Albert Lea.

We have a 55-acre vacant area of land just sitting around. This site is calling out &8220;tourism.&8221; Think of all the advantages of its location. The Blazing Star Landing is next to the Blazing Star Trail, which gives us the advantage of bringing people from other towns into Albert Lea. Since the Blazing Star Trail someday will lead to Austin, we could possibly bring people from Austin and surrounding towns into Albert Lea.

The Blazing Star Landing is also right next to Albert Lea Lake, making the site easily accessible for boaters. The Blazing Star Landing is about 1 1/2 miles or about five minutes from Interstate 90 and Interstate 35. Having interstates that intersect through Albert Lea gives us a huge opportunity to get people from other towns to stop for a rest and see what Albert Lea has to offer.

By having these advantages we could easily attract other people to Albert Lea if we were to build on the land. Petersen also mentioned that in 2000 Albert Lea&8217;s population was 18,356 and in 2006 it was estimated at 17,758. This shows that our population has decreased over the years. My plan offers an advantage for this because the new businesses that would build along the riverwalk could cause new people to move into Albert Lea, increasing Albert Lea&8217;s population.

There are endless possibilities as to what could be done with the land. We have waited six years. It is time to move on and take action. If we build on the lot, we could then look at the land and be proud of what is on the land.

Many of you are probably wondering what can we put on the lot? Well, I have one idea.

In a personal e-mail on Oct. 4 from Wendy Flugum, who works with Planning and Community Development, she stated that in 2004 the Minnesota Design Team offered several ideas for the vacant land. One of their ideas was to build a riverwalk with shops along Albert Lea Lake. Another idea was to build a lakeside resort on the Farmland site and the shoreline of Albert Lea Lake. These ideas are great ideas and they would be very likely to bring tourism and increase revenues as a result. The only disadvantage is, where are we going to get the money to build a resort?

I have a proposal that could decrease the cost. Instead of the resort, we could build a indoor recreation center with a indoor and outdoor park on the lot. Along the shoreline we could keep the Minnesota Design Team&8217;s idea and build a riverwalk. This might not seem like a lot, but it could have a huge impact on our town.

There are many advantages to building a recreation center and a riverwalk. One major advantage is that it&8217;s right next to the Blazing Star Trail. By developing the land, it would provide a place for people who are just beginning or ending their exercise a place to stop and enjoy a refreshment at one of the caf/s, enjoy the view of the lake or just take a break on one of the benches in the park. People from other towns that have just got off the interstate may want to stop and take a stretching break and go to the recreation center, enjoy some refreshments at the river walk, or stop in some shops to purchase souvenirs. Having the shops along the river walk won&8217;t only attract tourists, it will increase the town&8217;s revenue, giving us the opportunity to build more in the future.

The recreation center will provide a safe place for children to play, because it will be enclosed and would be open year-round. Adults can sit down on benches and enjoy food and refreshments from different vendors or vending machines. If families or big groups wanted to have a picnic, they could take advantage of the indoor/outdoor picnic area that would be built on the lot. In the recreation center, we build a basketball court, tennis court, skate park, skating rink and soccer field.

I understand that by building all of this at once, it would get really costly. I therefore have come up with a plan. For example, we could start off with a park and basketball court and each year we could add something new to the land. The advantage of this would be that we wouldn&8217;t have to pay for everything at once and can pay for it over the years. This would provide a place for kids and adults to keep active, while being in a secure place. At the riverwalk, we could have various restaurants, souvenir shops, and canoe rentals.

The only disadvantage to my plan is the cost. Where are we going to get the money from? In a personal interview with Albert Lea Councilor Al Brooks, the city recently asked the state for $10 million towards the development of the land. According to Brooks, we are likely to get some money from the state. If we are not able to get this money, there are still other ways of raising the money. With help from the city and our community we would be able to raise some of the money. As for the shops, the cost involved would be very low, because the businesses would be paying the city of Albert Lea to put their businesses on the land.

Although I do not know the exact cost, I believe all of this is possible if the citizens of Albert Lea come together and work as one team. Individual property tax would not go up by building on the land, which is something we should all keep in mind.

Picture yourself watching your children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren laughing and playing in the recreation center. Next, picture yourself having the time of your life while playing a game of tennis, basketball or just sitting down and catching up with a old friend while enjoying lunch. Finally, picture a warm sunny day in the summer. This is the perfect opportunity for you and your family to take advantage of the river walk and have lunch or rent a canoe and go canoeing.

If you have any ideas or suggestions about what to do with the land, present your ideas to the City Council. Meetings are held every other Monday at 7 p.m. at Albert Lea City Hall. You can also contact Albert Lea city planner Bob Graham at 377-4315.

Next time you drive by the site, think about the future and your families. What will you say to your children or grandchildren when they ask you questions about why there is a big empty spot right in the middle of the town? You won&8217;t want to have to tell them about the sad day when Albert Lea lost one of their biggest employers and you won&8217;t want to tell about all of the people who moved out of the town because of the fire. You will want to take your children or grandchildren to the recreation center or riverwalk and tell them the story of how the community came together and turned the empty lot into a budding spot of tourism and how it became a site of community pride.

Holly Bohlen is a 2007 graduate of Albert Lea High School and is currently a freshman at Gustavus Adolphus College.