Letter: Where did Albert Lea go off the rails — a bit of history

Published 8:30 pm Friday, September 17, 2021

The impetus for this letter is the level of negative chatter in the coffee shops, on social media and in the Tribune claiming Albert Lea is a failed city. Albert Lea has not failed, but is failing to thrive.

The blame is always laid at the feet of Chamber of Commerce and City Council. But, is this a fair assessment? “I think not!” Yes, our leaders should have done more and perhaps some have been in office too long. But the result was inevitable, small cities across America are failing.

Disgruntled voices claim that Albert Lea should have been more aggressive in their attempts to bring Cabela’s and the other businesses to Albert Lea. This was never going to happen. These businesses feigned interest in Albert Lea as a ploy to get a better deal at their intended locations.

To understand how the city functioned one must review its history. In the1940s-50s a small group of “Good Old Boys” (prominent business men), controlled the City Council. The comments that they did not want additional businesses competing for their labor pool are accurate. City staff were instructed to protect local industries by keeping competition out.

The city has a history of making it difficult for one to open a business. If the Albert Lea is to thrive, city staff need to help business owners comply with regulations.

In 1959 Albert Lea gained national notoriety when the Wilson strike turned violent. The governor declared martial law and deployed the National Guard. That strike effectively destroyed Albert Lea’s future. Why locate in a union town prone violence? Unions must accept part of the blame for Albert Lea’s failure to thrive.

The owners of the city’s industries were not blameless; they squeezed every dime possible out of antiquated plants. City fathers viewed Albert Lea’s industrial base as a cash cow to be milked for all it was worth. High taxes, unions propensity to strike and an anti-business city and state — why update your plant or expand?

The reason Albert Lea failed as a regional retail hub, is called “progress.” When the Skyline Mall opened, most Main Street businesses could not compete with an enclosed shopping center.

The Skyline Mall had a fantastic 25-year run — a combination of factors caused its demise. Greedy landlords pushed rents to untenable levels, property taxes and maintenance costs went through the roof, then its anchors began to fail. The death knell was Walmart moving and Northbridge Mall opening.

When Farmstead burned the local economy collapsed, Walmart constructed a new store and the national economy went into recession, causing Northbridge Mall’s national chain tenants to close.

Result Northbridge Mall failed.

Between Walmart and the new online shopping (Amazon), small businesses have been decimated in towns like Albert Lea across America.

The big fish eat the little fish until there are only one or two big fish in the pond. John Q Public would rather buy cheap made-in-China products than support local businesses selling “Made in America” goods.

Don Sorensen

Albert Lea