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Granite Falls, Minn., picks a prime location to start a new chapter for rural community

K.K. Berge built this three-story structure in 1924, purposely locating it as the gateway to the community's commercial district. It was located across from the town's opera house and a bank, and near the pedestrian bridge crossing the Minnesota River and linking the residential areas on the east and west sides of the river. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

GRANITE FALLS -- If you want to reverse years of decline and redefine a future for a small town Main Street, where do you start?

In Granite Falls, they decided there is no place better than the choicest lot in the downtown.

"He picked it because of its location,'' said Barb Benson, a member of a local group calling itself Granite Falls Riverfront Revitalization.

She's speaking of K.K. Berge and the building he erected in 1924. The immigrant tailor located his business as the "front porch'' to the downtown. It was directly across from an opera house and bank and next to a pedestrian bridge crossing the Minnesota River and linking the east and west sides of town.

It's where all the downtown foot traffic started -- and could again.

Four years ago the K.K. Berge building was slated to be demolished as part of an on-going effort to remove structures within the floodplain in the community's downtown.

The GFFR stepped in and convinced the city to allow it to use the $150,000 allocated for its removal to instead flood proof the three-story structure. The volunteer organization raised another $52,802.86 in private donations for the effort, and secured a $175,000 loan and contingency fund from the Granite Falls Bank, according to Nicole Zempel, director of the Granite Falls Chamber of Commerce and one of the original organizers of the GFRR.

It represents $227,802 raised to save the building and preserve the scenic overview it offers of the commercial district, Minnesota River and the historic, steel suspension footbridge bridge.

To flood proof the building, the first floor was raised 22 inches to place it above the 100-year-flood event level. Steel support beams were placed atop cement pads to assure the building's integrity if flood waters reach it, as they had in 1997 and 2001.

"It's built like a battleship,'' said Patrick Moore. He is director of Clean Up our River Environment and has been part of the GFRR group since its start.

The Granite Falls Area Chamber of Commerce will be locating its office and a community meeting room in the building this fall, when interior remodeling work now under way is completed. A portion of the first floor will also be reserved for art, history and other exhibits. Area artists will be able to exhibit their works and create on site, if they wish.

CURE also intends to keep canoes and kayaks at the building's riverfront location. They can be checked out like books at a library and used to paddle the Minnesota River.

It's all about building traffic by giving people reasons to come downtown, according to Moore.

Building traffic is vital to breathing new life and commercial activity in rural communities, and the arts help offer that possibility, he explained. Moore said the scenic setting, the friendly, small-town environment and the opportunities to enjoy the arts, history and outdoor recreational activities can serve to attract many people, local and otherwise.

GFFR members said they organized out of a desire to revitalize the community. They've seen too many small, retail businesses close in the downtown. The removal of other downtown structures due to the flood mitigation efforts only worsened the problem here, Benson pointed out.

"We did not want to see this building disappear and have more plaza area. We figure we have enough plaza and we want to save the (building's) history,'' she said.

Moore calls the project a matter of "harnessing social capital'' to create the welcoming infrastructure needed to attract people.

Raising funds, changing precedent to keep a building in the flood zone, and contending with engineering challenges made the four-year effort a real roller coaster ride, according to GFRR members. "We heard 'no' and 'impossible' so many times,'' said Zempel.

Local contractors found ways to solve complicated engineering challenges with practical and affordable strategies, said Moore. Committee members tapped what he called a "can do'' spirit and their resources to win support and raise the funds.

"It brings together the talents of the community in so many ways,'' said Moore.

"In the end it was what we knew that made this happen,'' he said.

Tom Cherveny

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

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