A.L. downtown needs a creative direction

Published 10:04 am Thursday, September 19, 2013

Column: Guest Column, by Joan Claire Graham


Joan Graham

I attended last week’s meeting about the future of the Freeborn National Bank building. Despite a handsome exterior facelift, the interior is in bad shape. After the city manager proposed renovation ideas that received tepid responses, it dawned on me that we can’t talk about the future of that building without talking about the future of the town.

As someone who grew up here in the 1950s and ’60s, I remember the vitality of a dozen square blocks of built-to-last architecture that housed two movie theaters, several department, shoe, jewelry and clothing stores, numerous restaurants and bars, a toy store, dry cleaners, a candy shop, barber shops, car dealerships, gas stations, hardware and appliance stores, a music store, two dime stores, three drug stores, three grocery stores, furniture stores, a bowling alley, a roller rink, two dairies, two hotels, three banks, two bakeries, city hall, the post office, courthouse, KATE Radio and the Albert Lea Tribune.

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Everybody had to go downtown. The bank’s upper levels, known as the Medical Arts Building, contained doctors’ and dentists’ offices and Benson Optical. Renters in apartments above stores added to the vitality of a social and economic hub, especially on Friday nights.

Adjacent to downtown sat four schools and 12 churches that depended on merchants’ goods and services, providing a balance of supply and demand. Times changed, however, and we began to decentralize in the late 1960s when someone thought shoppers needed a mall, and then two malls.

Downtown was just barely hanging on in critical condition when the removal of the high school from the center of the city put it on life support. Without that daily traffic, downtown became unnecessary. Unless a person needed to visit the post office, city hall or courthouse, she could avoid the area completely.

Past decisions have created our present circumstances, and now we don’t know what to do.

People with ideas believe it is futile to propose them. A few years ago, Albert Lea hosted a design team that made recommendations that are now forgotten. Ditto for ideas collected by a program called Albert Lea Listens. After a group spent years developing a plan to improve our lakes, county officials voted it down. Despite a petition signed by 1,500 citizens and promised financial support from private investors, the old auditorium was demolished. Artspace, with its 100 percent track record for revitalizing historic buildings, chose the Freeborn National Bank project from hundreds of applicants, and after it completed preliminary steps that included a successful feasibility survey, the city, not the developers, bailed out.

In the past 10 years, downtown has lost the Festival Theater, Sterling Drug, the bridal shop, the music store, a paint store, two bookstores and the doll museum, entities that employed people and attracted outsiders who dropped a little cash in our community. Is the eventual demolition of all our beautiful downtown buildings inevitable, or is someone going to come up with an idea to revitalize them?

Small towns like Lanesboro, Galena, Ill., and Ashland, Ore., have capitalized on their small-town quaintness to improve their quality of life, raise their property values and attract visitors. Twenty years ago Lanesboro, with a population of 750, went from boarded-up ruins to a bustling tourist destination after its residents decided to provide services, arts and entertainment to complement the 60-mile Root River bike trail. Ashland, with a population of 20,000, hosts 300,000 ticket buyers to their nine-month Shakespeare Festival, creating hundreds of jobs in hospitality, retail, the arts and marketing.

Here we sit amid five lakes, at the intersection of two interstate freeways. Many beautiful, historic downtown buildings sit empty or underused along a brand-new streetscape. What does Albert Lea want to become? If we want to become extinct, we are on the right trajectory, according to every census since 1980.

If we want to become a place where more people put down roots and prosper and visit, we had better start thinking creatively, and after some solid plans are developed, we’d better tell naysayers to button their lips and let things happen.

Who are our top-five employers? Mayo Clinic? Albert Lea Select Foods? Who else? Did any of them send a representative to the Sept. 10 meeting?

What might they gain if their employees see this town as a prosperous, vital and interesting place? What might they lose with declining population? What do we all stand to lose if we become a shrinking, stagnant pond of retirees rather than a place that attracts fresh, young and energetic wage earners who want to raise families and contribute to our tax base?

Instead of asking taxpayers to plan and shoulder financial and creative responsibility for revitalizing a building, why don’t our city leaders tap the talents and resources of Albert Lea CEOs who undoubtedly want to attract good, steady and happy employees? Investors, like businesses, exist to make money. Can our business leaders develop any ideas for how to attract investors?

Do we want the old bank building to become a community center with space for arts, a hotel, restaurant, microbrewery or a flea market? Do we want a reception or concert space? It’s commercial property, but there isn’t much commerce happening downtown now, and I don’t think any of those proposals will succeed unless they are part of a bigger picture that generates significant local and widespread interest.

Local people can’t keep them afloat, but they can become owners, managers and employees if we create a destination for visitors as well as a place that captures the interest and imagination of locals. Generated business will be taxable, helping us all. Let’s get creative. Why don’t we bring business leaders, city leaders and citizens together to figure out a plan?


Joan Graham is an author and an Albert Lea resident.