City center is hub for shopping, culture, finance, government

Published 9:56 am Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Renee Thorson and her son, Anthony, 9, walk their dogs Sophie and Cider through downtown Albert Lea in June during the first Wind Down Wednesday of the season. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

Renee Thorson and her son, Anthony, 9, walk their dogs Sophie and Cider through downtown Albert Lea in June during the first Wind Down Wednesday of the season. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

No. 2: Downtown

The center of a major reconstruction project in 2013, downtown Albert Lea has become a gathering place for residents both in and out of the community.

Whether it’s for shopping, banking, entertainment, restaurants or other festivities, the downtown is a cherished place for residents young and old.

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It comes in at No. 2 on the Tribune’s countdown of 25 favorite places of Albert Leans.

City Manager Chad Adams said Albert Lea’s historic downtown is one of the largest — if not the largest — intact historic districts in Minnesota on the National Register of Historic Places. Though the primary concentration is on Broadway, the district covers all or part of 12 blocks downtown and includes 114 buildings, 97 of which have contributing historic architectural or archaeological qualities.

Most of the buildings were initially constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

On the north side of the downtown is Fountain Lake and Fountain Lake Park, which was renovated this spring to include a grand staircase, handicapped ramp leading from Fountain Street into the park and a T-shaped dock.

The downtown goes west to Central Park, only about a block away from Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea, and to the east on Elizabeth Avenue, close to the post office and City Hall.

On the southern end it is bordered by the Union Pacific Railroad, Liquor Depot and the Freeborn County Courthouse, which is the home of the county government, the police station and the county jail.

In between is the Marion Ross Performing Arts Center, Freeborn National Bank building, multiple restaurants, financial institutions, dentist offices, law firms, thrift and antique stores, the Albert Lea Art Center, the Freeborn County Arts Initiative and other retail establishments and professional offices.

Downtown got a facelift last year with the $4.6 million reconstruction of Broadway from Fountain Street to Main Street. The project included new street, sewer, water and sidewalks, along with other amenities such as light poles, benches and flowerpots.

The work is expected to continue next summer on Broadway from Main Street south to Interstate 35 under the direction of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The more than $5 million project will include a bituminous mill and overlay and will also incorporate some of the decorative items from North Broadway.

The reconstruction was topped off this year with several festivals downtown, including Eddie Cochran Weekend, Wind Down Wednesday and Celebrate Albert Lea.

Wind Down Wednesday and Celebrate Albert Lea brought crafts and artisan vendors, entertainers and residents out to socialize downtown. For Eddie Cochran Weekend, hundreds came out to check out classic cars that lined the streets.

Adams said he and Ryan Nolander, executive director of the Albert Lea Economic Development Agency, are contacted weekly about a project for the downtown. Ideas have included everything from businesses to retail stores, specialty shops and restaurants and breweries.

The city already provides matching grants to renovate the exterior facades of downtown buildings, and Adams said the city is planning to apply for a Small Cities Development Grant next year to help property owners renovate the interiors of their buildings.


25 favorite places 

The Tribune staff compiled what it feels are the 25 favorite places of Albert Leans. The results will be published over the course of the coming week. What will be No. 1? Agree or disagree, it will be enjoyable to mull over and discuss. Send feedback to