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Groups look for answers as changing economy, demographics leave empty storefronts across area communities

Amber Sausen outlined plans Oct. 19 at the K.K. Berge Building in Granite Falls. The Minneapolis College of Art and Design brought together instructors, students and community residents to select a project. Teams pitched their ideas and participants voted on which project to pursue. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

APPLETON — From artists to bulldozers to the long arm of the law and volunteers with lots of zeal.

Communities in the Upper Minnesota River Valley are employing a wide range of strategies to contend with vacant buildings.

A changing retail economy and aging population are leaving open storefronts and empty school buildings in many rural communities.

“We got pretty aggressive this past summer,’’ said Jon Radermacher, city manager in Madison, county seat for Lac qui Parle County. “We identified 12 properties with hazardous buildings on them.’’

Madison has used the law to remove buildings found to pose safety risks.

In one case this summer, it took on the cost of removing a building that was crumbling. In doing so, it also took out a common wall with an adjoining property, forcing two businesses in that building to move.

Who bears the cost of the removal and repairs will likely be decided in court, said Radermacher.

Yet Madison knows its successes. Some 40 volunteers pitched in over the course of three days to clear out one vacant building, making it an affordable location for a new business.

And recently, a group of business people in the community calling itself the Madison Investment Properties acquired the town’s former bowling alley. They are converting the building to hold retail businesses and offices.

The group previously upgraded a former auto dealership building and recruited a new dealer. The business owner is interested in staying and buying the property, said Radermacher.

Many of the 37 communities in the Upper Minnesota River Valley counties of Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine are looking at what they can do about vacant buildings. Due to all the interest in the issue, Dawn Hegland, director of the Upper Minnesota River Valley Regional Development Commission, said her staff is looking at hosting an event where officials can discuss what strategies are working for them.

Property laws, tax issues and individual financial situations make it very complicated for communities to deal with vacant buildings. Yet their presence matters greatly to a community’s economy as well as its pride. “Nobody wants to drive down Main Street and look in a big plate glass window into a vacant building and it looks like junk,’’ said Hegland.

Sometimes the solution is found in creativity, and the talents of artists.

The Minnesota College of Art and Design is currently working on a project to tap the talents of local residents to “activate’’ vacant buildings. Sarah Wolbert, project manager with the college, led a workshop last month in Granite Falls. With a set amount of time allowed, the teams crafted and pitched projects and voted on one to fund and pursue.

Now, the school’s talents are being offered to help turn the front of the former Great Plains Natural Gas building in Montevideo into a center for local expression in the community. The project will convert the front to a public expression board, where local citizens can post their comments.

Seeking input from civic leaders

At the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota, Morris, students are looking for comments from civic leaders on what to do about vacant school buildings. To date, they have identified 35 school buildings within a 90-mile radius of Morris which have been closed and repurposed.

People are often very enthusiastic about rallying to save the buildings, but whether they are assets or liabilities to a community “really depends,’’ said Kelly Asche, community programs specialist with the Center.

The students have found examples where closed school buildings have successfully taken on new roles as apartments, community centers and, in one case, a bar.

The stakes are huge. The failure to find a viable use leaves a very visible building crumbling away in a community’s heart, he pointed out.

That’s the kind of scenario that Clara City is committed to prevent. It launched a tax increment financed-venture this year to remove four buildings, three of them in the commercial district. “You either sit and wait for somebody to fix the problem, or you start attacking it,’’ said Windy Block, city administrator.

The use of tax increment financing to remove the buildings creates vacant, commercial space that is affordable to develop, he explained.

It’s very hard to interest developers in acquiring neglected buildings, he noted. “They don’t see it as valuable land,’’ said Block. “They see it as more of an eyesore that is a problem.’’

And yet, the inventory of vacant buildings in the region also includes structures that are historic treasures and potential economic assets if the right use can be found for them.

The city of Benson knows it has one. The city removed two dilapidated buildings — two old elevators and a former lumberyard — in its commercial district.

It spared the former creamery building, which was once a vital part of the local cash economy. It was here that trains would drop off cold beer and other goods to be kept in an ice house, and pick up locally produced eggs, butter, milk and other produce for sale in the Twin Cities, according to Robert Wolfington, city manager.

The city believes the building has a future, but is not sure yet what that will be. Rather than forcing its demise, it has mothballed the structure by properly closing it up so that it will remain in good condition.

State grant funds are helping the city market the structure. The city is also offering incentives to help any developer who may step forward.

“If we can’t figure it out, we’ll let our children figure it out,’’ said Wolfington of the decision to preserve the structure.

Montevideo has seen success with a similar approach. The community reinvested in its downtown with a nearly $3 million upgrade in 2000. It has seen entrepreneurs develop new uses for historic structures, such as the Hollywood Theater. Former retail space — such as a drug and gift store — became office space and the headquarters for a local company.

There are only a handful of vacant buildings today, and they are viewed as assets rather than liabilities, according to Angie Steinbach, Montevideo Economic and Community Development director.

“Having the business space available is something that is a good thing in our community,’’ she said.

Finding ways to take advantage of vacant buildings is not only an issue for the region’s towns. Asche said that as his students have gone about assessing the situation involving vacant school buildings, they are learning that another issue looms. A growth in the number of vacant church buildings — many of them in the countryside — will likely be the next challenge.


Tom Cherveny

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

(320) 214-4335