Top 10 best things about A.L.

Published 2:45 pm Saturday, April 30, 2011

It has been said by visitors to Albert Lea that the people who live in this city take for granted what a wonderful place it really is.

When told this, Albert Leans often agree. They know they tend to see the struggles and setbacks that come with making a good community, such as school budget cuts or the closing of a few retail stores or a horrific crime.

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But they aren’t completely unaware. They know it’s a good town. It’s just they have a lot of pride.

It’s kind of like a guy who cares a lot about his lawn. He will notice the few weeds and thin patches. He’s not truly happy until everything is just perfect. People walking by, however, will see how lush and green the lawn is. When they compliment the man on his lawn, he smiles because, deep down, he knows he does a good job.

The Albert Lea Tribune newsroom decided to highlight our favorite aspects of Albert Lea. We had a meeting, came up with a list and tossed around how it ought to be ordered. The result was this story. You might have your own way of listing your favorites, so our story might be a good conversation starter with the person sitting at the table, across the room, in the car or wherever you are reading the newspaper.

1. Lakes

Of course.

Albert Lea has five lakes either partially or completely within its city limits — Fountain Lake, Albert Lea Lake, Pickerel Lake, Goose Lake and Lake Chapeau. Thanks to bridges on Interstate 35, Albert Lea Lake is often the first lake visitors to the Land of 10,000 Lakes see.

A fisherman enjoys some quiet time in a boat Friday on Fountain Lake’s Edgewater Bay. -- Tim Engstrom/Albert Lea Tribune

Albert Lea has several waterways, among them are the channel between Fountain and Albert Lea lakes and the channel that connects the main body of Fountain Lake to its northerly neighbor, Bancroft Bay. Fountain also has Edgewater Bay and Dane Bay.

Not only are these in the city, but they offer good share of public shoreline. They are everyone’s lakes.

People enjoy their lakes many ways. Some go for boat rides. Some ski, wakeboard, tube or kneeboard behind boats. Some folks just like to sit by the water and relax or have a picnic in the many parks. A whole lot of guys and some gals enjoy fishing the waters, either from shore or in a boat. City Beach is a popular place to swim and frolic. Running, walking or biking around the lake are common exercises. Cruising on the Pelican Breeze II is a summer pastime.

Residents love their lakes so much that in 2005 they approved by an overwhelming 80 percent approval for a local-option half-cent sales tax to pay for lake cleanup projects. And they have successfully lobbied the state for bonding bill dollars to pay for cleanup efforts, also.

2. Family-friendly.

Albert Lea is a safe place to raise your kids, and it has good schools. For many residents, that’s why they live here. Time and again, we print stories about people who move away and come back to raise their families. Other times, young couples grew weary of suburban life and wanted a change.

Kate Richards and two boys ride their bikes Friday on First Avenue.

Albert Leans support education. In 2007, a school levy to increase per-pupil funding for operating revenue passed with 59 percent approval. The funding helps particularly in an age when the state has placed schools in a bind. And recently when because of state funding and a grade realignment, a well-liked band director had to be cut, the people showed up to voice their opposition. It was because here, in Albert Lea, people care about schools.

Low crime, knowing your neighbors and personal security make Albert Lea family-friendly, too. Sure, in a city of 18,000, there will be crime. However, get this: One real estate information provider has a crime index where 100 equals the national average. Minnesota has an index of 72. Albert Lea is 48. Austin is 70. Mankato is 88. Mason City, Iowa, is 71.

And in this city, the police and fire will respond in a timely fashion. That’s not the case in a lot of other cities.

3. Freeborn County Fair

Yes, it’s that spectacular. For a city of this size to play host to such a grand event with such big stars, from the Oak Ridge Boys to the Beach Boys and from Kellie Pickler to Miranda Lambert, it shows the community likes to have out-of-towners come visit.

And there’s a saying about community pride. There are the kind of cities where people enjoy going elsewhere, and the kind of cities where people want others to come visit. Which kind has more pride?

George Jones sings a duet at the fair in 2010.

The fair not only provides the chance to see great musicians, it showcases agriculture, offers a carnival, provides a rich variety of entertainment — from magic to a demolition derby — and is the site of nightlife for the week.

The fair is the gem of Albert Lea yearly events, but there are other times we invite people to share our city with us. The big ones are Fourth of July Celebration, Eddie Cochran Weekend and the Big Island Rendezvous.

4. Parks and trails

Believe it or not, people from other cities envy the recreational amenities Albert Lea offers.

Albert Lea has trails and sidewalks on the lake.

(Take a deep breath if you read this out loud.) There are 42 city parks, 29 playgrounds, a city pool with a big water slide, a hockey arena with two sheets of ice, four outdoor hockey rinks, the seven-mile Blazing Star Trail, trails to get around Fountain Lake, an interconnecting sidewalk system through most of the community, two 18-hole golf courses, two 18-hole disc golf courses and a nine-hole disc golf course, two islands with footbridges, eight ball fields, a senior center, 16 tennis courts, two community gardens, two fishing piers, 270 publicly permitted docks, a skate park, a beach, a boat fuel station, three boat launches, a new boathouse, a bandshell, a football/soccer/track stadium and numerous pavilions, basketball courts, horseshoe pits, soccer fields and picnic tables. Some of these facilities are managed by the city, some by the state and some by the schools.

Moreover, the 2,038-acre Myre-Big Island State Park is not in the city, but it is right outside the city limits.

It is common on a nice day in any season to see people of all ages using the many facilities available to the people of Albert Lea.

5. Giving and volunteering

Some years the people of Freeborn County raise the goals set by various fundraising organizations, such as the United Way, Salvation Army or even the local service clubs or cancer-fighting groups. Some years, they don’t make the goals. However, it usually is the case that when they don’t achieve the goals, the amount raised is higher than in any previous year.

People pack a Youth for Christ fundraiser in 2010.

And people here are quick to pitch in. When tornadoes devastated the countryside in June 2010, people just showed up to help clean up the fields and farms. When the state asked people to adopt highways to help fight litter, people pitched in. When the city asked for the same thing for parks, groups were quick to adopt a park.

Hundreds turn out to fight cancer at the Relay for Life. And locals give to causes such as Youth for Life, Albert Lea Family Y, American Red Cross, their local churches, youth sports, scouting, relief for disasters foreign and domestic and a list of other deserving organizations.

6. Medical facilities and health initiatives

With 1,200 employees, Albert Lea Medical Center is the largest employer in Albert Lea, and it is part of the Mayo Health System. It provides more medical services than a city of 18,000 normally would have.

Lakeview students form a walking school bus.

For instance, very few places in Minnesota have a hyperbaric chamber for wound care. Some other things you often don’t find at a regional health center are lasik eye surgery and a cancer center, along with the Fountain Centers drug-and-alcohol treatment facility and the HealthReach physical rehabilitation center and dialysis center. Plus, ties to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester means patients get access to specialized care through travel or through telemedicine.

Albert Lea was the site of a major health experiment in 2009 conducted by the Blue Zones Organization and AARP. It brought terms to the local lingo such as “walking school bus,” “hari hachi bu” and “moai,” which Albert Leans have to explain to outsiders when they hear us talk about health. Restaurants, schools and workplaces changed their offerings. The city built sidewalks and gardens and is planning a bike lane. And people in general are doing more to take care of their health.

Other initiatives continue the work, such as the National Vitality Center, Pioneering Healthy Communities, the Statewide Health Improvement Program, among others.

7. The cityscape

So many Midwestern cities look like waffles. They have streets going north and south and streets going east and west. There are no curves, little texture and a lot of boring driving. Also, you find their factories in plain sight. Sometimes their factories are empty shells of dilapidated hulks and right downtown, too.

Not Albert Lea. We invented the industrial park. Our industries are conveniently located in them and, for the most part, out of sight of the major thoroughfares.

Hilly Sunset Street meets curvy Lakeview Boulevard.

Our streets curve around the lakes and over hills, creating nice vistas for a pleasant driving experience. Sure, strangers sometimes get lost, but that’s just part of the joy of not having bland travel routes. What city wouldn’t want to have a Lakeview Boulevard, an Edgewater Drive, a Bay Oaks Drive, a Lee Place, a Fountain Street, a Lakewood Avenue, a Frank Hall Drive, a South Shore Drive, a Park Avenue, a Circle Avenue, a Sunset Street, a Hawthorne Street, The Fairway, an Albert Lea Street, a North Shore Drive, a Greenwood Drive, a Will-O-Bruce Road like the ones in our city? And the list of great streets goes on.

Downtown Albert Lea is a large historic district and, though not in its prime, still retains many gorgeous and tall structures, with the refurbished Freeborn National Bank as the architectural star. And this downtown sits on a ridge overlooking Fountain Lake.

Broadway Avenue runs down the center, with more businesses spanning to the east along Main Street and to the south along Broadway.

The other three business districts of Albert Lea are at the west end of Main, the east end of Main and the north end of Bridge, each offering their neighbors differing options, such as malls, discount retailers, specialty stores, grocers, truck stops, farm needs and auto dealers.

8. Collaboration

Most folks anywhere come to know the politics of their community, their state and their federal government, not other towns. But there are moments when other places see what happens here, and usually they come outside of the eye of the news media, such as at conventions and regional meetings.

The Jobs Industrial Park is the first in the nation.

When people of other communities learn about projects that happen in Albert Lea, they marvel. For instance, the new boathouse at Brookside Park brought together officials with the schools, city, state, businesses and the general public. And just look at how the community pulled together to build a second sheet of ice at City Arena. Or the public-private partnerships that happened when the Kiwanis Club built a basketball court.

Or the fast-acting friends who rushed to help victims of the June 17 tornadoes and the June 26 severe thunderstorms last summer.

Collaboration is the means by which Albert Lea created America’s first industrial park. And it is a key factor in how the community continues to find companies willing to build in its industrial parks.

Whether it is Alamco donating materials at cost for a new pavilion at a park or the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce acting as the foundation for many local causes, the business, government and nonprofit agencies of the Albert Lea area indeed know how to work together to accomplish a stated goal.

9. Freeways

Going somewhere?

It sure is convenient to be serviced by freeways in all four cardinal directions. The people of Albert Lea can hop on Interstate 35 and be in the Twin Cities in 75 minutes. They also use the freeways to go to Rochester, Owatonna, Austin, Mason City, Ames, Des Moines, La Crosse, Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Duluth, Fargo, Worthington, Sioux Falls and Rapid City and points beyond in all four directions.

Albert Lea is a popular stop for truckers.

On top of that, green directional signs in Minnesota for I-35 from the Twin Cities to the Iowa border and from La Crescent to Worthington tell people the way to Albert Lea. It’s nice to be turning at a major intersection in the Cities and see our hometown in big letters.

It’s a commonly held belief that Albert Lea has failed to take advantage of its freeways; however, a drive through our industrial parks yields many companies in the fields of distribution or packaging. Albert Lea had a population of about 13,000 before the freeways were built. There are about 18,000 now. Freeways aren’t responsible for all that growth, but they surely played a role.

With the construction of Trail’s Travel Center, Love’s and Hy-Vee Gas, plus a selection of hotels and restaurants, Albert Lea is drawing many visitors off I-35 and I-90.

10. Wildlife

Albert Leans love the wild animals that reside in their city. It’s common to see cars slow down on streets to let ducks cross. If there is a pond, there usually is a duck living there. Ducks annually inhabit the front lawn at The Children’s Center, a local preschool.

There are pelicans that flock each spring and summer to Albert Lea Lake and the channel between Fountain and Albert Lea lakes. They stand out bright and white with orange beaks, drawing onlookers who marvel at the beauty of the birds despite seeing them many times before.

A mallard swims in a pond at Edgewater Park Friday.

Fishermen gather in ice houses in the winter and in boats and along the shores over the spring, summer and fall. Efforts to clean up the lakes have benefited the fishing quality, most notably with walleye in Albert Lea Lake. It’s arguable that fishing is the most popular participatory sport in the city. If not, it’s right up there.

In the fall and spring, bald eagles have been spotted visiting our waters.

And many homes have birdfeeders to keep the back window entertaining, particularly in winter when the squirrels, rabbits aren’t darting hither and thither and the pigeons are gathering atop local rooftops.

Honorable mentions:

  • Albert Lea Farmers Market
  • Albert Lea Public Library
  • Residents who are engaged in civics
  • Local theater and art

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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