The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 12, 2013

Mankato's Downtown also rises

Why it matters: Downtowns help define the character of a city and influence its livability, vitality and ability to grow.

The Mankato Free Press

---- — There was a time in the not too distant past when downtown Mankato was considered the scourge of the city. There were dumps and dives, unkempt buildings and empty storefronts. Peeling paint and crumbling mortar were the primary design styles.

How things have changed.

The approaching approval of one of the largest downtown Mankato developments in decades is not only notable because of the size of its $15 million to $16 million investment but also because it is mostly privately financed, except parking lots and infrastructure.

Tailwind Group’s plan to build a seven-story glass office tower on a block of South Front Street along with a commercial building and adjoining parking lot stand as the first major privately-financed office tower in four decades in Mankato. City and state grants will finance a $5 million parking facility, the third such enhancement in a decade or so.

And to think we used to argue about downtown parking.

The transformation of Mankato’s downtown can be attributed to a number of groups, people as well as public sentiments that were brought to bear on elected leaders. It’s not only an urban redevelopment that worked, but, by some standards, can be considered a shining example of urban renewal.

There remains much work to be done. Pedestrian spaces could be improved. Some storefronts still need a facelift and the social scene after 10 p.m. could be pushed in a direction of more order and stability.

Still, it’s important to note how the transformation occurred. The analysis usually points back to public and private partnerships. Clearly the approval and construction of the Mankato Civic Center, now the Verizon Wireless Center, was the centerpiece of the public commitment. It was important to have a public vote on the sales tax that financed the plan. It muted the detractors and encouraged the builders.

The private sector took off as soon as the public commitments were clear. Entrepreneurs opened businesses, mall developers took a risk and secured public offices as tenants. Developers bought the unkempt buildings and remodeled them. The businesses marketed themselves and the consumers responded.

Downtown momentum has been maintained and boosted by civic groups including the new Visit Mankato convention bureau, the City Center Partnership and private businesses like Frentz Construction and Brennan Cos. who have rehabbed some of the centerpiece buildings in downtown.

The city of Mankato and its elected leaders kept the ship tacking in forward directions even though there were bumps and controversies along the way. When obstacles come up, discussions occur. Reasonable changes are sometimes made. The public sector has a culture of openness with the private sector. Elected leaders reach reasonable compromises instead of resorting to knock-down, drag-out events.

The city’s approach could be described as cautious optimism and cautious planning while requiring reasonable accommodations from developers. The requirement for gateway enhancements to project near city entrances come to mind.

Sure, there are controversies. The private sector is not always happy with the public sector and vice versa. But for the most part, disputes seem to be solved in reasonable ways.

Successful cities can put their finger on why things go right and why things go wrong, and then they encourage the former while avoiding the latter. Mankato can keep moving forward by keeping those principles in mind and importantly, maintaining public involvement and support.

But a community also must get behind the idea that downtowns matter not just as roads and parking ramps, buildings and benches, but also as places for a community to gather, have fun and do business.