A walk down Main Street: Keeping the heart of the community vibrant
Three regional cities are finding new and inventive ways to reimagine, reinvigorate and restore their downtowns and Main Streets, so they once more will be the heart of life for the community.
For decades, a city’s downtown or Main Street was usually its retail and commercial center. It wasn’t uncommon for even small towns to have a couple of grocery stores, clothing retailers and several restaurants.
However, over the last three to four decades, as malls and big box stores have replaced the mom and pop businesses for many of life’s necessities, these same cities are having to imagine a new future for those downtown hubs.
Three regional cities are focusing on just that. They are finding new and inventive ways to reimagine, reinvigorate and restore their downtowns and Main Streets, so they once more will be the heart of life for the community.
Boosting a Willmar renaissance
It is not that Willmar’s downtown is empty. Far from it. Downtown is one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in the city, and is also home to some of Willmar’s most treasured institutions and businesses.
“Willmar is unique, we don’t have just a Main Street,” said David Ramstad, former Willmar Planning and Development director. “We have a 12-block downtown area. It is actually a place.”
However, it is also the poorest census tract in Willmar and has seen very little in terms of new development over the past few decades as retail stores moved to other commercial areas, such as First Street South.
“(Downtowns) need to be repositioned and to become something else, in order to become vibrant again,” Ramstad said. “They are not going to be the active, fun, people places they once were unless they are reimagined.”
In an effort to give the downtown a boost, the Willmar Planning and Development department, with approval from the Willmar Planning Commission and City Council, created the Willmar Renaissance Zone .
“We are trying to make it so downtown no longer competes with First Street. That it is repositioned as an entertainment and neighborhood district,” Ramstad said.
The zone offers developers a range of monetary incentives to create projects within it, including free city-owned land parcels, city permits and sewer and water connections, reduced utilities connection fees, potential grants for facade renovations and tax increment financing or tax abatement for eligible projects.
“We prefer housing, with retail down below and parking,” Ramstad said. “What that is going to do, we hope, is to put 10% of Willmar’s population downtown.”
The Renaissance Zone has already seen some success. Lumber One Development is planning on building a 54-unit apartment complex with parking downtown, the first Renaissance Zone project. The market-rate complex will offer residents a bit of urban living in a small town.
Increasing the number of residents living downtown could mean an increase in patronage to the district’s restaurants, shops and other businesses. It could also entice other businesses to open within that 12-block section.
“It will reposition downtown as this neighborhood and entertainment place where people live and have fun,” Ramstad said. “That is a unique thing for a small town like Willmar.”
There has also been a push to focus more on downtown’s cultural gifts. In an effort to do so, Willmar joined the national Main Street America program.
“A lot of the conversations we have had is this idea of how you convert downtown into a cultural destination,” said Willard Huyck, Willmar Main Street coordinator.
Huyck wants to bring more people downtown to try the ethnic restaurants, to take in a show at the Barn Theatre and partake in the events and celebrations that take place downtown.
“We look forward to making downtown a common, shared and vibrant space that celebrates and invests in Willmar and all of its communities,” Huyck said.
Revitalizing Olivia’s city center
Like Willmar, Olivia is also a Main Street city. It is also looking for ways to revitalize its city center, which over the last many years has lost much of its retail business. Recently, the city saw its two independent pharmacies, hardware store and coffee shop close their doors.
The hope is that being a Main Street city will help find ways to reimagine what downtown Olivia could be.
“We are definitely starting slow, slow kind of by design,” said Susie Lang, Olivia Economic Development Authority director and Main Street coordinator. “It takes a while to turn a ship.”
Lang said currently she is trying to create activities downtown that are inviting and cause people to linger in the area “to change the tone a little bit.”
So far, there has been some success in bringing people downtown.
One event that has been successful is the Third Thursday in Olivia , a farmer and vendor market. The area is also used for the annual Corn Capital Days summer festival and Holidaze, which ushers in the holiday season.
On the EDA side of things, Lang has been putting together a database on the available space, the costs of rents and the number and types of business that still do call downtown Olivia home. While downtown can look sort of dark and quiet, Lang said most of the buildings in the area do have businesses within them. Many of them are service-related, such as salons or lawyer’s offices.
“There are opportunities here,” Lang said.
Lang is also preparing to be of assistance to those existing businesses, “just making sure businesses know who to call,” as major street work will tear up DePue Avenue and a sidewalk on Ninth Street next year.
Despite the gradual improvements to Olivia’s downtown area, Lang continues to be optimistic that even better things are on the horizon. New businesses are in the works, while others are being taken over by new owners. Community support is strong in Olivia, and Lang feels that will only help more as the downtown area enters into a new era.
“People in this town are like die-hard Olivians. They are going to fight for their town,” Lang said. “Times are changing.”
Defending Litchfield’s historic facade
The city of Litchfield’s commercial historic district has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places for 25 years, but it wasn't until the push to save the old Opera House happened in 2007-2008 that community members really got behind defending the city’s historic facade from the ravages of time and a changing world.
Two organizations have led the charge: the Litchfield Heritage Preservation Commission and the Litchfield Downtown Council.
The Litchfield Heritage Preservation Commission was formed by City Council ordinance in 2008, spurred by the success of the Greater Litchfield Opera House Association buying and saving the historic opera house .
“Our purpose is to educate, promote and protect our historic resources,” said Darlene Kotelnicki, Litchfield City Council member and member of the Preservation Commission.
One of the commission’s duties is to review renovation plans for the city’s historic buildings, to encourage the owners to protect and preserve the historic character of those structures.
“Things have really progressed, and people have embraced the historic part,” said Connie Lies, a former council member and Preservation Commission member.
The Litchfield Downtown Council Inc. started working in 2020 raising money for downtown improvements, sponsoring events and helping continue the successful downtown business environment.
A restored antique jewelry clock, now proudly installed in front of Mimi’s Cafe on Sibley Avenue, was the group’s first major fundraiser.
“We used it as our logo and our slogan is ‘Time to enjoy downtown Litchfield,’” said Kotelnicki.
This year the group is working on getting nine benches installed along Sibley Avenue.
“They are all going to be made locally,” Kotelnicki said.
Events the group has sponsored include a weekly Music in Central Park during the summer, Thriving Thursdays and the Downtown Cowtown fundraiser for area nonprofits. Upcoming events include Harvest Madness, Victorian Christmas and the annual Christmas Gala. The goal of these events is to bring people from not only Litchfield but the entire region into the community.
The work both organizations have put into downtown Litchfield has helped the city weather the changes many downtowns and Main Streets have faced, such as changing retail habits and aging buildings.
“It all goes hand in hand. If you don’t have the infrastructure to support the downtown and you don’t have the downtown to support the infrastructure, you don’t have a city anymore,” Lies said.
Larry Ackerman, owner of longtime Litchfield business Larry’s Barber and now member of the Downtown Council, has been impressed with the work the council has done.
“Things are set up, ready to go, things get done. It is a marvel,” Ackerman said.
The Downtown Council is still working on its projects and events for 2022, but members are excited for the opportunities Litchfield has, thanks to all the work both council members and residents have put in.
“Our Litchfield Downtown Council, we are just getting started,” Kotelnicki said.
This story was originally published in the West Central Tribune's IMPACT edition on Oct. 23, 2021. More stories in this section can be found at https://issuu.com/westcentraltribune/docs/impact_2021