Merchants fret downtown plans

Published 10:15 am Thursday, June 7, 2012

Access during construction. Costs. Width of streets.

Those were among the concerns raised this week during an open house at City Hall set up to discuss Albert Lea’s downtown redevelopment project.

The plan, known by many as the streetscape project, calls for replacing deteriorating infrastructure underneath Broadway Avenue — from Main Street to Fountain Street. It also calls for paving, replacing the sidewalks with wider ones, adding a pedestrian plaza and revamping Fountain Lake Park, among other improvements.

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Construction is scheduled to begin April 2013 and continue through October, around the same time improvements are scheduled through the Minnesota Department of Transportation for Broadway Avenue south of Main Street.

Though many people at the open house said they did not have a problem with plans to replace the infrastructure and road, they were concerned with some of the amenities, including the pedestrian plaza.

Plazas were proposed on William Street next to the Freeborn National Bank Building or on Water Street next to the Marion Ross Performing Arts Center.

People in attendance agreed they would rather see a plaza in the middle of the downtown near the Freeborn National Bank building to draw people into the downtown, instead of having it on the north end of Broadway Avenue.

Initial plans called for closing off William Street for the plaza; however, after some discussion, the people in attendance agreed on a plaza with special enhancements that would be open for parking and traffic during the day but that could be closed for special events.

“There are very few people in favor of blocking of William,” said Frames-R-Us owner Kathy Sabinish. “Albert Lea has all kinds of parks. We don’t need another park downtown in our way when we’re trying to conduct business.”

Several downtown business owners talked about the need to draw people into the heart of downtown to their businesses.

Celebrations Party & Gifts owner Tami Staker asked whether public restrooms were included in discussions and talked about the importance of having them for people coming to the downtown.

Some downtown business owners also questioned how the project was going to be paid for and asked whether cost estimates could be given to them so they would know what to expect.

Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams said while the official cost has not been determined, the project would offer an array of funding options.

The sewer and water improvements would come from the water and sewer fund, and assessments would be given to property owners for the street and sidewalk reconstruction. The city also has received $1 million from the state in bonding revenue, and there will be a portion that will come through property taxes.

Adams said the city will approach the Shell Rock River Watershed District to see if it will contribute toward the storm water designs.

Contractors will be required to stick to a schedule and will receive penalties for not following it. The downtown business owners talked about the importance of having the schedule be followed.

Portions of the road will be blocked off at a time to complete the project.

The comments will be taken back to the steering committee that has been meeting about the project, and the next public meeting is scheduled for July 16.