The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 20, 2013

New Kia dealership plan gaining renewed attention

Neighbors appear to support it, but zoning issues still need to be resolved

By Tim Krohn
The Free Press

MANKATO — An undeveloped piece of land with high-visibility next to Country Inn & Suites seemed like a good spot for Kia executives to plan a new dealership.

The land, half of which is owned by the Mankato Area Foundation, was a perfect vehicle for the charity to make a lot of money for its causes.

And the neighboring businesses are all for it.

But the project ran headlong into city land-use rules and set up a showdown before the City Council, which was being asked to override recommendations by its own city staff and Planning Commission.

But that showdown has been diverted after city officials and project backers have agreed to take a new tact.

Retired land developer Curt Fisher, who donated the land to the foundation, was frustrated the city wouldn't budge on its zoning rules.

"I thought it was an excellent use. We have strong support from the neighbors. Usually in zoning or rezoning, what the neighbors think is very important to the city," Fisher said.

"Industrial" park?

The four-acre parcel, along Highway 22 next to the entrance of Eastwood Industrial Park, is zoned industrial with industrial or office use permitted. When the developers went to the Planning Commission seeking land-use plan amendments allowing a commercial project, they were turned down unanimously.

The commission said the land was long specified for specific uses and noted that previous attempts to have it converted for commercial use were turned down. And they noted, ample commercial land exists in the area, including just a short distance to the north, across Highway 22 from Menards.

Hentges said the industrial park, which is projected to be filled within a few years, was established in 1994. The city reviewed land-use zoning in the area again in 2004 and concluded the land-use rules should stay.   

But Fisher and other supporters of the Kia plan argued the city has allowed a mix of building uses in the park that are far from industrial. Businesses in the park range from Robert W. Carlstrom Construction and AgStar, to Associates in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery and Farrish Johnson Law Firm.

And the Country Inn & Suites and Bonfire are in the corner of the park.

But the city said the offices in the park fit with the designated land-use there. And they say the hotel and restaurant were allowed because they are "compatible with the industrial users within the park," as park tenants can use them for business-related purposes such as business meetings or having company visitors stay at the hotel.

Taking a step back

The issue is on the City Council's Monday meeting agenda, but both sides said they don't expect council discussion and that the topic will be postponed to a later time.

Hentges said he, along with foundation leaders, will hold a meeting that includes all Eastwood park tenants, developers with land in the park and area stakeholders to take a new, comprehensive look at uses in the park.

"We want to see if there's some other alternatives other than an across-the-board changes of zoning. We will look at Eastwood as an entrance to the business park and see if there's some complementary uses to go there," Hentges said.

"This is the way the process should work. I think we should have explored opportunities."

Hentges said looking at the area as a Planned Use Development may make sense. PUDs are a way of promoting large scale, unified land development, seeking businesses -- and sometimes even residential development -- that support and complement each other.

Hentges said that when Eastwood was begun 20 years ago, city officials were likely envisioning such a plan for the park. "I think that's what they were aiming for, but they didn't have those Planned Use Development tools, so you kind of have this mix (of businesses) that don't support each other."

Bryan Sowers of the Mankato Area Foundation board said the group is glad the issue is being looked at anew.

"We are going to proceed to try to work out a solution with the city. They've offered a different path that's worth exploring."