The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 28, 2014

South Front Street businesses back plan

Council to decide fate of $1.3 million upgrade Monday

By Mark Fischenich
The Mankato Free Press

---- — MANKATO — South Front Street business owners are facing the potential of substantial assessments, the disruption of having their street ripped up on short notice and a narrower street when the project is finished. And most of them couldn’t be happier.

The property owners applauded city officials Thursday for the nearly $1.3 million redesign of a three-block stretch of the aging downtown street which will bring more spacious sidewalks, patio seating outside bar/restaurants, more trees, a few additional parking spaces and room for community events such as farmers markets or art fairs.

“I think you guys have done a fantastic job of coordinating all this,” said Chris Johansen, who with her husband Joe owns two properties on the 600 block of South Front Street and who said city staff heard the concerns of business owners. “You listened to it all, and you’re applying it all.”

That sentiment brought applause from most of the people attending Thursday’s meeting, the last prior to a key Mankato City Council vote Monday night. Councilman Mark Frost warned that the vote could be close and encouraged supporters of the plan to attend and speak up.

“This is going to generate a lot more activity downtown,” Frost said.

“It’s going to save downtown,” said Jeff Palmer, owner of The Fillin’ Station coffee house.

Councilwoman Karen Foreman expressed skepticism of the project at a previous meeting, noting that the pavement and utilities on South Front Street don’t need an immediate upgrade and that property owners are being asked to pay only about 20 percent of the cost through assessments.

“This strikes me a little bit as a ‘nice to have’ project,” said Foreman, questioning if it’s an appropriate use of limited tax dollars.

A revision of the original financing plan, which would have had the 80 percent city share coming exclusively through general obligation bonds repaid through property taxes, spreads the cost among a variety of revenue sources. Under the new plan, the $253,000 in assessments to property owners would be combined with $150,000 in municipal street aid from the state, $150,000 from the city’s local option sales tax, and $250,000 in tax increment financing generated by the $12 million South Front Street office/residential/commercial complex currently under construction by the Tailwind Group.

That leaves about $462,000 in general obligation bonds to be repaid from general tax dollars, or 37 percent of the total cost of $1.26 million.

“This financing plan, hopefully that will bring along some people that were a little resistant to it,” Frost said. “... The financing mechanism they’ve come up with here is a lot better than we thought we were looking at.”

The redesign of South Front Street has been under discussion for more than a year as part of a broader plan to make downtown more pedestrian friendly. The initial phase would add open space while making more room for existing patio seating on the pedestrian mall on the 400 block of South Front, which has been closed to traffic since the Mankato Place mall was built in 1978.

The 500 and 600 blocks would remain open to traffic, but turn lanes would be eliminated and bump-outs at the corners (and in the middle of the 500 block) would slow traffic and create shorter pedestrian crossings of the street. Those changes, along with narrowed driving lanes, would allow for tree plantings, benches, broad sidewalks on the 500 block to allow for patio seating, and angled parking on both sides of the 600 block (where Walgreens and the Wagon Wheel Cafe are located) to add parking slots.

Not only does the plan call for a radical remaking of one of the city’s oldest business districts, it puts it on the fast track. If the council approves the project Monday and bids come in at or below cost estimates in early May, which City Engineer Jeff Johnson said he’s confident will happen, construction could be underway by the end of May and substantially complete by July 26.

“We’re hoping to have the road open and the sidewalk navigable by that time,” Johnson said.

Final completion, including all landscaping, lighting and security camera installation, would occur by Aug. 15.

Along with the business owners, Thursday’s meeting attracted some younger residents. Ben Lundsten, a Wisconsin native who came to Mankato to attend Bethany Lutheran College and plans to open a photography business, said the South Front Street project will be attractive to young people and make it easier for the city retain them after they graduate.

“I think it’s going to be incredible,” Lundsten said. “Things like this are what’s going to keep me around.”