Downtown’s transformation under way

Quill FeatherSince last September, a committee consisting of state, county and city officials has worked directly with downtown Stillwater property and business owners to determine the future of downtown. The 40-member committee has come together to identify all possible opportunities that address the changing needs and demographics of persons shopping and dining in downtown Stillwater.

The Downtown Revitalization Committee is the first panel created from six economic opportunities identified during the 2011 Community Symposium’s Town Hall meetings. Other committees will be formed for the five remaining opportunities; arts and culture, circular trolley system, communications, access, and amenities.

Why downtown Stillwater? The Symposium chose Stillwater for its downtown revitalization opportunity because of the seismic changes that will occur once the Brown’s Creek State Trail, Lowell Park improvements and Lift Bridge renovations are complete.

“These major projects will forever alter downtown in every conceivable way. From automobile traffic patterns to increased pedestrian, biking and auto interaction to the very products and services offered by downtown businesses. These changes are coming and we need to be ready for them. The committee has a limited time frame to complete its work and make its revitalization recommendations to the proper governmental authorities,” said Todd Streeter, executive director of Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce and Symposium coordinator.

“This is really a partnership between the city and the downtown community. We all want downtown to be a thriving area for both the businesses and for those who come to downtown. Stillwater has a 150-year-old historic downtown as its city’s centerpiece and we need to get it in shape and ready for the future,” added Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki.

Why the committee? Downtown property and business owners are direct stakeholders in the downtown’s future., and therefore, the best source of motivation and inspiration. It is in their collective best interests that downtown is thriving and successful, and they have to work together to make that happen.

“Downtown has about 18 months to define what it wants to be and to start the implementation process before trail, park and bridge improvements come online. As I often say, you wouldn’t start painting the dining room just as your dinner guests are arriving, and downtown Stillwater is no different.  There is a lot of work to do and not much time to do it in,” Streeter said.

The committee’s challenge is not just discovering new opportunities or correct things detracting from one’s downtown experience, but also be open to new ideas, concepts or methods that may not have been embraced in the past.

Minnesota’s historic downtowns are slowly dying because of big box retail outlets and the convenience they provide in direct parking and endless selection of goods and services. How do historic downtowns with infrastructure 100-plus years old compete?
Historic downtowns can’t offer storefront parking like the big box stores and you won’t find endless choices in just one store. To survive and thrive, downtowns must re-invent themselves and compete on their strengths. Property owners must reinvest in their buildings with fresh paint and signs that capture the character of a historic downtown. Contemporary big box developments can’t come close to the unique ambiance and charm like downtown Stillwater.

Business owners must also re-invest in their business. Complacency and acceptance can become the norm over long periods of time. Remodeling the interior, re-merchandising the offerings and revising the business model in anticipation of new consumers visiting downtown are necessary steps that enable businesses to compete and thrive.
“Property and business owners have to work together and all at the same time to produce a revitalized downtown.  This can’t be accomplished by doing it one building or store at a time over 15 years.  It must be done in unison.  The future of downtown is really in the hands of downtown businesses and building owners, right where it should be,” Streeter said.

What is the process? The committee has six subcommittees focusing on a specific area or theme. Those subcommittees include; ambiance, biking, branding, business mix, river front and traffic and parking. These subcommittees are charged with conducting research to identify opportunities specific to their themes. The research should highlight ideas successfully implemented in other downtowns in the U.S. or other parts of the world. The subcommittees will provide examples of what other cities did, challenges they encountered and how they helped create a thriving commercial district, and then present them to the other subcommittees during the larger monthly committee meetings.

“Downtown Stillwater is like a Rubik’s Cube, it’s three-dimensional and multi-faceted with every aspect intertwined with one another. New opportunities need to be addressed simultaneously because they are all connected in some way,” Streeter said.
As the subcommittees finish their research, they will present opportunities in the form of project proposals, providing data that supports their recommendation. The subcommittees will present their proposals to the appropriate government officials and to those who may be interested in financially supporting their recommendations.
Where’s the money? The Community Symposium was created to address the economic needs and opportunities within our immediate region, which includes the cities of Bayport, Lake Elmo, Oak Park Heights and Stillwater. The Town Hall meetings were held to identify needs and ideas desired by residents and businesses.

The purpose of the symposium is to identify organizations, businesses and individuals willing financially support a project of their choosing. Our current economic world will not permit governments to fund every community improvement. If the community wants new opportunities it must help create and support them financially.

“Since we started this committee, we have had several organizations and individuals raise their hands saying they want to help. I’m confident that as these committees complete their work, there will be fiscal champions who will sign-up to support projects that match their own interest or philanthropic goals. It’s really the community that will in the end create the community they want,” Streeter said.
As project benefactors become involved in the committee’s work, it will provide an incentive for the cities, county or state to approve and contribute to the collective effort of others.

“Improving our community is not automatically a city and taxpayer proposition, but rather, an opportunity for the community to pick a project they like and support it the old fashion way — through ownership of their own work and financial contribution. The resulting community ownership and pride is the true gift the process offers,” Streeter said.

This is the first of a series of Downtown Revitalization updates. To learn more about the Community Symposium and the Downtown Revitalization Committees’ work, go to www.communitysymposium.com, or contact the Chamber at 651.439.4001, or by email, director@greaterstillwaterchamber.com.

Todd Streeter is executive director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at tstreeter@ilovestillwater.com or call 651-439-4001. Visit www.GreaterStillwaterChamber.com for more information about the organization.

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