By Dan Nienaber
---- — MANKATO — When Mark Hustad opened his Once Read Used Bookstore for its first day of business on Mankato's Front Street, the Vietnam War was finally over, Jimmy Hoffa had been reported missing two months earlier, and Tiger Woods, Drew Barrymore and 50 Cent (whose current name also happens to be close to the price of gas at the time) were brand-new babies.
It was 1975 and Front Street was a lively retail center even though Madison East Center had opened on the hilltop two miles away. The city's urban renewal effort hadn't fully kicked in, so there was no mall just down the street.
When he had time, Hustad could look out his front window on the 600 block and see a busy place. The storefronts and office buildings were full, potential customers were walking up and down the street, the nearby cafes were busy during the lunch and dinner rushes. He said he felt lucky to find a space in a busy downtown.
Hustad's view out his window, as well as his view on Front Street, soured during the next couple of decades. He never thought he would see the positive things that are happening now, things that have brought together a group of independent business owners who rarely talked to each other.
New construction that has been under way for weeks will bring more offices, more apartments, more businesses and more parking to the area. A new city plan will change the downtown experience for pedestrians. Most importantly many of Front Street's downtown stakeholders also have become active with the City Center Partnership, a Greater Mankato Growth-affiliated group that is doing much to improve the downtown district. Hustad credits Jerry Crest, a former hospital executive, with starting the change.
"We were late jumpers on," Hustad said. "We knew what was going on, but nobody would get out and talk. We're just a bunch of independent businesses and we were worse than a bunch of Norwegian farmers. We couldn't get out and make a cold call.
"Then Jerry Crest came along and we became a bundle of energy. Since 1975, when I first came here, this is the first time we've been organized."
Gregg Andersen, who owns the Gallery 19 business just down the block, said he also has seen a change since the Front Street business owners became active with the City Center Partnership. Hustad said Andersen has taken over for Crest as the person who keeps everyone informed about what is going on.
"I know everybody on this block," Andersen said. "I know their first name and what they're doing. We've really come together."
Hustad's business started its downward slide a few years after a roof was built over other stores along about two blocks of Front Street, including Brett's Department Store, to create the downtown Mankato Mall. It was an effort to entice regional customers to continue visiting downtown's restaurants and retail businesses.
"At first we thought it was a benefit to the area," Hustad said. "But pretty soon everyone started to leave."
In 1991 River Hills Mall opened even farther away from downtown than the Madison East Center, creating a new bustling retail area. Brett's Department Store, a downtown retail hub that had been on Front Street since 1868, closed in 1992.
The previous decade and the following decade were tough for Hustad and his downtown neighbors.
"During the 1980s, when the block started going down hill, I let my business go," he said. "Everyone was leaving. I thought the building next door to me was going to be torn down. There were a lot of boarded-up windows. It was a bleak situation back then. I'd have days where no one came into the store."
Andersen's photography studio was on the other side of the downtown strip back then. He owned a shop on Riverfront Drive that was bought by the city, demolished and turned into a parking lot. At that time city officials hoped more parking would help the businesses in that area. Andersen bought his Front Street building, which has a pet-grooming business in the storefront portion, in 2011.
Hustad started feeling more positive about his downtown location about a decade ago. The city replaced an ugly parking lot with a parking ramp that created a nice outside mall area down the street. A coffee shop also opened across the street, which brought more customers to his Once Read store. The location of that coffee shop has changed, but it still has a big window facing his store.
"That really was help for me," he said. "That was a natural match."
Hustad and Andersen said they are encouraged by a $1.3 million city improvement project that will make their block and the 500 and 400 blocks of South Front Street more pedestrian friendly. They hope that, along with a $16 million Tailwind Group project being built on the 500 block between Front Street and Riverfront Drive, will bring even more business downtown. The Tailwind project will include a seven-story office tower, a four-story mixed-use building and public parking ramp.
Hustad said he hopes the improvements will bring a mixture of new retail, office and dining options downtown. He also wants to see more young people living and learning to do business downtown.
"I want to keep the old downtown feel," he said. "That's what makes us unique. Shopping downtown is a different experience than shopping in these modern malls and it's part of our heritage. Even little kids know that. When they come in here, they know it's different. They don't know what it's like to park outside and go in. They don't know if they're going into a house or what.
"Downtowns are on their way back all over the place and it's nice to see people focus on our downtown. We want to be part of it and we're tickled to be back in the family."