Editorial: Give the Art Center a new home in the bank building

Published 9:27 am Monday, September 9, 2013

Knock. Knock. Knock.

Too often the city has waited for a dream developer to come along, only to pass when opportunity comes along. The Blazing Star Landing provides a good example. More than a decade later, it is still vacant and not on the tax rolls, even after the city said no to Walgreens wanting the corner.

In 2006, the city smartly invested in the Freeborn National Bank Building and the Jacobson Building. But waiting for a dream tenant could subvert the possibilities for those buildings. Having a tenant and people walking through a building shows more interest than nothing at all.

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The Albert Lea Art Center’s request to move into the Freeborn National Bank is opportunity knocking.

There is no doubt that art can do wonders for downtown commerce. The city did make an effort back in 2009 and 2010 to work with Artspace Projects Inc., a nonprofit that sought to use art and artists to bolster downtowns. That didn’t pan out for Albert Lea because funds couldn’t be found for a feasibility study.

However, Artspace wouldn’t exist it there weren’t merits to art improving the quality of life for local residents and bettering the general atmosphere of a commercial area.

In other words, who needs a study? Who needs an Artspace? Let it happen naturally, because it does in many cities over and over and over.

And finding homes for amenities like theater groups, museums, community art galleries, well, that’s what city governments do. It’s part and parcel to the role of serving the public good.

Imagine if the owner of the Freeborn National Bank Building were a businessman, who, unlike the city, must pay taxes. He would want a tenant to pay the rent, even if it were a nonprofit art gallery and especially if the nonprofit had been the only possibility knocking on his door. He couldn’t afford to wait. He most likely would figure that a positive gathering space like an art gallery and retail store would spur others to come to his building and he could gain other tenants. It’s like having an anchor store.

That should be the thinking of the city leaders, rather than waiting, waiting, waiting.

Sure enough, the Albert Lea Art Center does not pay taxes, but it would pay rent — to the city. That’s more revenue than no rent and no taxes, which is what the city has at present.

The city wants to make sure it can accommodate a developer who might want to purchase the building and make income from the first floor, such as a restaurant. There is merit in that.

What that means is the city needs to behave like a businessman owner might: Either build to suit what the Art Center needs to move in, as so many malls and building owners do, or else allow the Art Center to develop the first floor, with the expenses canceling out the cost of rent. That’s probably the best solution. A developed first floor is going to appeal to a potential buyer more than what’s there presently.

Our suggestion is to find a place in the Freeborn National Bank Building for the Albert Lea Art Center, even if both sides don’t get exactly what they want.

After all, the Freeborn National Bank Building is arguably the most architecturally beautiful building in Albert Lea. It is among a handful of structures that gives our city a true sense of place. It deserves to house art. The city has an opportunity here.

Knock. Knock. Knock.