The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 30, 2013

Minnesota 2020 report focuses on downtown

By Dan Linehan
The Free Press

MANKATO — The Legislature's attention is fixed on the budget, but a St. Paul public policy nonprofit wants lawmakers to save some time for smaller issues, including the vitality of the state's small towns.

Two staffers from Minnesota 2020, a left-leaning group, stopped by Mankato Wednesday to promote their report, "Five Ways Forward." It includes recommendations about how to reduce medical errors, increase solar investment, support public transit and reform teacher evaluations, but the group's Mankato visit focused on ideas to help renovate small-town storefronts.

They're calling on the state to extend a tax subsidy that currently covers properties on the National Register of Historic Places. The group wants the program, called Minnesota Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits, to be extended to other buildings.

It works by providing an income tax rebate for up to 20 percent of the expense of rehabilitation.

Minnesota 2020 is also starting an online directory of vacant storefronts to assist developers.

Lee Egerstrom, a researcher with the group, said the state has long incentivized companies to build in industrial parks with programs like JOBZ.

He said downtowns across Minnesota have vacant storefronts ready to house the next generation of entrepreneurs, some of whom need little more than an Internet connection.

Though Minnesota 2020 is seeking state action, Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges said cities can invest in their small towns, too, as Mankato has with its civic center.

Small cities like Eagle Lake are already taking economic development into their own hands.

The city used local funds to buy two vacant storefronts and plans to demolish them this spring, City Administrator Sack Thongvanh said. The city -- or, preferably, a private developer -- could then set up a redevelopment project.

While the tax credit program wouldnÕt work here because of the demolition, Thongvanh said any state funds to help redevelop the city would be welcome.