Broadway is changing in more ways than just new pavement

Published 3:22 pm Friday, May 16, 2014

Albert Lean Linda Knudsen has fond memories of the city’s downtown.

With everything from Herberger’s and Leuthold’s to other retail stores like Woolworth’s, it was often a community gathering place, she said.

“It was loaded,” Knudsen said. “We had lots of clothing stores; there were drug stores and there were tons of people.”

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Knudsen, who now owns Plymouth Shoes with her husband on Broadway, said she hopes someday the downtown can get back to that.

“It’s all about bringing the community here to see what we have to offer,” she said.

Several community leaders say the city is taking steps in that direction with the reconstruction of Broadway last summer, the implementation of new events downtown and renovations of several downtown buildings. Having a local coffee shop and swanky bar and grill open up in the past two years hasn’t hurt for getting people downtown, either.

“We’ve been very pleased with the private and civic support of the downtown,” said Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams. “We just hope it continues to be a domino effect. That’s part of the intent is to get more density in the downtown.”


Broadway reconstruction

City leaders and residents celebrated the $4.6 million downtown reconstruction in October with a 5-kilometer Color Dash, games, food, dancing and music.

Crews replaced aging water and sewer infrastructure under the road, put in new roadways and sidewalks and installed bumpouts that shorten the distance to cross streets. Downtown Albert Lea is more pedestrian-friendly than before.

Large flower pots now adorn the sidewalks, along with benches and new street lights. Restaurants will be able to have seating and tables outdoors next to their businesses.

Susie Petersen, executive director of the Albert Lea Convention and Visitors Bureau, said once spring arrives and the snow is melted, downtown business owners and volunteers plan to plant flowers in all of the pots on the ground plus install hanging plants on the light poles.

“It will be a great transformation,” Petersen said. “We already get people when they come in, they say, ‘You have a beautiful town,’ I’m just excited about it.”

Prairie Wind Coffee owner Lisa Hanson said she has enjoyed seeing the improvements downtown.

“It has dressed it up,” Hanson said.

In the spring, crews will complete the reconstruction of Fountain Lake Park, and once that is done there will be another celebration planned by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

The project is expected to continue south down Broadway in 2015.

Adams said the state is planning a mill and overlay of Broadway south of Main Street. The city hopes to have some of the same design features — street lights, benches and decorative pavers — put in there as there have been on Broadway north of Main Street.

Adams said though he knows the reconstruction will not revitalize the downtown overnight, it can, together with collaboration from other groups, point the city in the right direction.


Downtown events

In 2012, the downtown debuted its summer market and music festival called Wind Down Wednesday with the goal of bringing people to the heart of the city.

Designed after a weekly festival in Rochester called Thursdays on First, it was moved to Central Park in 2013 because of the construction. It is slated to return to Broadway this year.

It will be once a month in June, July and August and features vendors, food, entertainment and other activities.

“We wanted to do more for our community and have people come out and hang with their friends and have some fun,” said, Knudsen, who is one of the organizers. “We want to help people see there’s so much here that Albert Lea has to offer and that you don’t have to go out of town to have a good time.”

In turn, the organizers hope people from out of town might want to stay in town overnight and shop at some of the stores here.

“It helps our downtown but it also helps the community,” Petersen said.

Aside from Wind Down Wednesday, community leaders in the last few years have created other events in the downtown.

Last year, there was Celebrate Albert Lea, which started with a 5-kilometer Color Dash, Open Streets Albert Lea and other activities during the Fourth of July.

Petersen said this summer, the car show on the second day of Eddie Cochran Weekend will be downtown instead of at the Freeborn County Fairgrounds. The decision was made in part because of the street construction project, she noted.

The Marion Ross Performing Arts Center is active about every weekend, even showing live opera on a widescreen from the New York Metropolitan Opera. The American Legion Club continues to be a common gathering spot. And the Albert Lea Art Center is looking for new ways to reach the public, even perhaps finding a new home downtown in the coming year or two.


Building renovations

In February 2011, the Albert Lea City Council created the Broadway Ridge Renewal Grant program through contributions of the city and Freeborn County to encourage downtown redevelopment.

The grant involves a 50/50 match up to $50,000 for approved building projects.

Buildings on Broadway including Plymouth Shoes, Stadheim Jewelers and the former St. Paul Clothiers took advantage of the fund and have since undergone renovations.

Others, such as Youth for Christ’s The Rock, renovated without city funds.

A new restaurant and bar, the 112 on Broadway, opened in September 2012, bringing more people to the downtown in the evenings, and the opening of Prairie Wind Coffee in spring 2012 created a community gathering place for area residents.

“It’s fun to watch the people come in and make all these connections,” Hanson said.

City leaders hope the renovations will spark the interest of other building owners and encourage them to improve their buildings as well.

“A community’s success is often measured by the vitality of its downtown,” Adams said.

Along the same efforts, the city is hoping to find a developer for the Freeborn National Bank and Jacobson Apartments buildings at the intersection of Broadway and William Street.

Officials are reviewing three proposals, including two from out of town, for the development of the buildings.

“One of our top priority goals for the community is to increase tax base,” Adams said. “We see this project as an anchor for not only the downtown.”

The two buildings have been under city ownership since 1998.

In 2007, the city spent about $2 million to restore the exterior of the Freeborn Bank building, including tuckpointing, a new roof, a skylight and new water, sewer and electrical service to the buildings, among other improvements.

Inside, crews have cleaned out asbestos, filled in the basement and taken out a majority of the plumbing.

A developer would need to replace electrical, plumbing, and heating and air conditioning, among other improvements.

At one point, city officials estimated renovations would cost another $4 million to $6 million.

“These are two beautiful buildings that have a great deal of historic character that will be general attractions to the downtown,” Adams said.

The first floor of the Jacobson building presently houses Prairie Wind Coffee

Pat Mulso, executive director of the Freeborn County Historical Museum, said she hopes the new streetscape and renovations downtown will draw more business and activity there.

“I’m really excited,” Mulso said.

“I’d really love to see downtown become a destination point for our community and for those from out of town,” Hanson added.