The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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March 2, 2013

Ojanpa: Front Street preps for the high life

— Kyle Smith isn’t a social engineer, but he could inadvertently become one if part of his plans for Front Street come to fruition.

The Mankato developer admits it’s a bit of dice roll to market upscale $1,200 apartments in the heart of the bar district, but says he’s not going to plunge in headlong. 

“We’re going to put our toes in the water and see what it feels like. Fourteen units is a lot different than jumping in with 102 because it mitigates your risk.”

Those 14 apartments in a four-story building are part of a planned $18.5 million commercial, residential and office space venture that would radically alter the look and perhaps the social dynamic of a downtown block that has largely remained in retro mode.

Put it this way: You can go buy tires at Miller Motors, a pizza at Pagliai’s, and pie for dessert at Wagon Wheel Cafe down the street and you still haven’t left the 1960s.

And on end-of-the-week nights that area becomes a different animal — college-student party variety — the concentration of bars there so intense  the area has come to be called the Barmuda Triangle.

Can the sensibilities of those gentrified apartment dwellers, with views overlooking Front Street, coexist with the not-infrequent hordes of young revelers?

“It’s a question to be answered,” Smith says. “We’re going to find out.”

There’s a method to Smith’s boldness. First off, he thinks there’s a demand for higher-end housing downtown. As evidence he points to the success of the upscale rental dwellings in the new U.S. Bank building at the corner of Hickory and Second streets (though that location is buffered from the bar zone).

He thinks the downtown area also stands poised for a modernization, and if his development venture becomes the bell cow for that, all the better.

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