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Clara City looking to revitalize commercial area

Margaret’s Café has been a popular gathering place in Clara City’s downtown since 1982, and will remain so at its present location. Diane Olson, left, and Cindy Plowman, daughter of owner Margaret Essendrup, served patrons earlier this week. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

CLARA CITY - Crash, slam, bam.

That's the fate awaiting three buildings that will soon be razed in Clara City's commercial district.

The hope is that others will be going up as the city embarks on a long-term effort to revitalize an aged commercial district.

The City Council recently created a tax increment financing district on three downtown blocks. One of the three blocks is targeted for the first work: The city has acquired two properties in that block, and is soon to close on a third that it will remove.

Tax increment financing, often referred to as TIF, is a tool that allows the city to remove blighted or unwanted properties, and turn them into vacant lots that are more economical for new development, according to Windy Block, city administrator.

The response from the retail community has been encouraging, said Block. During informal discussions about the plans, he said many property owners have essentially told him: "If I can be treated right and treated fairly, I'm willing to do something.''

Some things are already in the works, independent of the city. The accounting firm of Grussing, Bonnema and Wrede is building a roughly 5,700-square-foot facility along Minnesota Highway 23 at its intersection with Main Street.

Dan Wrede, a partner in the firm, said they outgrew their space in a building on the first block being targeted by the city for revitalization. The firm, with a staff of 12, hopes to occupy the new building on Highway 23 in October.

The block they will leave behind is the southeastern most of the commercial district. It's the most visible to those arriving from Highway 23. It is where the city is committed to removing the three properties, most likely by or in September, according to Block.

The Crate Farmers Insurance building, the former Rothwell Butcher Shop and the Land Shark-Leaning Tower building are slated for removal.

Galen Gerdes, who operates Prairie West Mutual Insurance, said he plans to replace the Crate Farmers Insurance building that had served as his office location by erecting a larger, west-facing building on the same block.

The removal of the former butcher shop building will leave a vacant lot next to Rhode's Family Foods. Mark Rhode, owner of the store for the past 14 years, said he plans to make upgrades to the store.

Like all retailers in this community of 1,360 residents, he faces competition from larger stores located in nearby Montevideo (pop. 5,383) and Willmar (pop.19,610). Rhode said small town retailing can be a struggle, but he is supportive of the city's goals. "If you don't upgrade or keep it up, it is just going to crumble,'' he said.

Other neighboring businesses on the block include Margaret's Café, the Clara City Herald, and the Clara City Veterinary Clinic.

Margaret Essendrup has operated the popular café since 1982, and plans to continue at the same location, said her daughter, Cindy Plowman. She said the café draws a mix of town and country regulars.

Dr. Jim Koewler said he plans to stay put as well. His building on the block's east end is in good shape and serves his service-oriented business well, he explained. He started in the 1980s, when 75 percent of the business involved caring for large animals on area farms and required a staff of four veterinarians.

Today, caring for companion animals represents 85 percent of the business and he is the lone veterinarian. He splits his time between clinics in Montevideo and Clara City.

Ted Almen, owner of the Clara City Herald, supports the city's initiative to revitalize the commercial infrastructure. He anticipates keeping the Herald office in its longtime location on the block, but would consider other options to make way for new development. "We like where we're at, but we're not going to stand in the way of progress,'' said Almen.

Block said the Clara City Economic Development Authority is financing the demolition through tax increment financing. The three buildings to be removed pay a total of $2,792 in property taxes each year. When development takes their place, the "increment'' or increase in taxes that will be paid on new buildings will be captured to pay the debt for acquiring and removing the structures.

Block said the overall goal is to not only keep all of the city's businesses, but attract more as well. The city especially wants to maintain core retail operations, including the hardware, pharmacy and grocery store businesses.

The city learned recently that Keaveny Korner Drug will be closing its doors Aug. 1. Yet on a positive noted, Block pointed out that last September, it saw Troy and Janet Sweep purchase the hardware store when its former owner retired.

Troy Sweep said small town hardware stores face tough competition from big box competitors, but his business has enjoyed strong loyalty and patronage. He also supports the city's initiative.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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