We like downtowns, but we love those big-box stores

Larry Werner

When I moved to the Twin Cities with my wife and two children almost 30 years ago, we settled in the Morningside neighborhood of Edina, just blocks from the 50th and France shopping district that is the picture-perfect, walkable downtown.

Along 50th Street and France Avenue, you can buy anything a shopper might want, even if she doesn’t really need it, and things she needs, such as groceries at Lund’s. Edina’s lovely downtown still has a movie theater, restaurants and shops accessible from sidewalks we liked to stroll for the fun of walking and people watching.

Much as my wife liked 50th and France, I can still remember how excited she was when the “Edina Sun Current” reported we’d be getting a Target just north of us in St. Louis Park. I’m sure the owners of those cute little stores at 50th and France weren’t as excited as my wife that another big-box competitor was opening nearby.

I find myself reminiscing about pedestrian-friendly downtowns and the popularity of big boxes as I read in our newspapers about the expansion under way by the biggest of boxes: Walmart.

In newspapers ranging from ECM Publishers’ “Union-Eagle” in Princeton, up north, to the southern-metro communities served by our “Sun Thisweek” in Dakota County, we’re reading about new Walmart stores going up. Within a few miles of the new Walmarts in Princeton, Burnsville and Lakeville are downtowns whose continued existence is threatened by competition from the nation’s biggest retailer.

How do we keep our downtowns alive when consumers are enticed by the low prices and infinite variety of merchandise at the big boxes? It takes hard work and investment by local heroes who believe downtowns are worth saving, and it takes a special quality that attracts people to our cities’ main streets.

In Princeton, the old Ben Franklin, which closed a dozen years ago, sat empty while city officials were celebrating the decision of Walmart to build in the city. Likewise, Lakeville officials speak warmly about the historic downtown, which, like Princeton, has its share of vacant storefronts, while praising the employment, tax revenue and shopping opportunities that will be provided by the Walmart going up a few miles south.

In Burnsville, where the City Council spent millions to create a downtown called Heart of the City, the signature building in that new downtown — Grande Market Square — has been foreclosed upon, according to a story by “Sun Thisweek” Burnsville Editor John Gessner.

The same city officials who recruited developers to construct the Heart of the City district are now praising the construction of a new Burnsville Walmart, just a few miles north of the new Lakeville Walmart.

The question is: Can we have our downtowns and our big boxes, too? How do Lakeville and Princeton, Elk River and North Branch, develop the appeal in their downtowns of Edina or, say, Stillwater? Those last two cities might not be good examples. Edina’s fabled affluent population might give its downtown a financial advantage that cities with normal demographics can’t match. And, historic Stillwater has the charm of being a river town to which tourists are drawn.

There are elements besides big bucks and rivers that can keep downtowns alive, despite Walmarts. The city of Anoka is the Anoka County seat, and that draws people to the courthouse and its nearby shops and restaurants. Likewise, Cambridge, the home of Isanti County government, draws folks to its downtown, where we publish our Isanti County News.

So what do places like Princeton and Lakeville do without the high demographics, the riverfront or the county government center? Those downtowns have to be saved from Walmart by such local heroes as Carie Fuhrman, Mary Chapman and Jeff Hammer in Princeton, and Judy Tschumper and Mark Hotzler in downtown Lakeville. And by city councils that believe in downtowns.

In anticipation of Walmart opening in Princeton next spring, Fuhrman, Princeton’s community development director, and Chapman, coordinator at the Chamber of Commerce, came up with a downtown-revitalization program that will provide almost $20,000 each to three businesses willing to set up in vacant downtown spaces.

Jeff Hammer, owner of Crystal Cabinet Works in Princeton, has bought the former Ben Franklin building and will use that empty storefront as a showroom for his products.

In Lakeville, Tschumper, executive director of the Downtown Lakeville Business Association, works with downtown property owners to create events and excitement in the historic downtown. Hotzler, a real estate developer, has bought up most of the property on the city’s main street and redeveloped spaces for entrepreneurs.

The city of Princeton has kicked in $30,000 for the Fuhrman-Chapman “It Starts Here” program. Years ago, the Lakeville City Council passed a special property tax that supports the activities of the business association there.

City governments in other of our communities are getting on the downtown bandwagon. Last week, the city of Elk River unveiled a downtown-enhancement plan drawn up by a task force.

There is something about a downtown that people won’t let die, even in the face of competition from monster retailers.

“It’s the heart and the soul of our community,” Fuhrman said of Princeton’s downtown.

Joni Astrup, associate editor of our “Star News,” quoted Stewart Wilson, chair of Elk River’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, as saying some cities are trying to create downtowns they never had. That’s what Burnsville’s Heart of the City and Apple Valley’s Central Village attempt to be – new downtowns.

“Elk River already has a downtown and has had it for over 150 years,” Wilson said.

So by saving our downtowns, we’re preserving our history.

What do you think? Are downtowns worth saving in this age of the box?

Larry Werner is director of news for ECM Publishers. His email is [email protected]