Sculpture walk

The downtown sculpture walk, which has rotated dozens of works of art through the city center of Mankato and North Mankato, is a visible example of the efforts to revitalize the historic commercial district that helped garner a Minnesota Main Street designation. File photo

MANKATO — Mankato has become the eighth historic Minnesota town to be designated a Main Street Community through the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota.

The designation, announced at Old Main Village Wednesday morning, recognizes Mankato-North Mankato's broad commitment to revitalizing and preserving the cities' core downtown district. And it provides access to new tools to continue the city center's preservation and growth.

At the heart of the program is a belief that the best way to preserve historic buildings is to ensure they're being used, which makes them more valuable and more likely to prompt investment in repairs. And older downtown commercial space is more likely to be occupied if the surrounding area is a vibrant, interesting place where people want to visit, live and do business.

"It's an economic development program that uses preservation as a strategy to revitalize downtowns," said Sarina Otaibi, the Minnesota Main Street coordinator. "... We want to make these downtowns attractive and viable and a place to do business."

Which largely describes the mission of the City Center Partnership, an organization created by Greater Mankato Growth and the city of Mankato to implement a renaissance plan for the downtown area. It was the partnership that made the effort to gain the Minnesota Main Street designation.

The application process was a rigorous one — covering commitments to improve the physical appearance and atmosphere of the downtown, to increase marketing and events, to expand the economic base and to build a cadre of people to work toward the program's goals — taking nearly a year of effort by Partnership Director Megan Flanagan. But Flanagan said the work on the application also showed that Mankato was well on its way.

"It was a great opportunity to just see our progress," she said. "When you lay it all out on paper, you can see what we accomplished."

A quarter-century ago, following the almost complete collapse of the downtown retail marketplace, Mankato's city center was far from vital. A handful of bars and restaurants, a few financial services and legal businesses, and some offices constituted most of the activity. Building vacancies were widespread.

The effort to reverse the decline included the construction of the civic center and the Hilton Garden Inn, built in part on tax subsidies. Beautification projects, from hanging flower baskets to the addition of green spaces, were combined with changes to streets to attract pedestrians and outdoor seating. Music and art were promoted, culminating in the annual sculpture walk that stretches across both Mankato's and North Mankato's downtown business districts.

Private investment included renovations and restorations of historic buildings along with millions of dollars in new construction. Numerous people took the ultimate plunge by opening a new business in the city center.

The Minnesota Main Street designation implies a commitment to continue that effort well into the future while also gaining access to the program's expertise, which includes design, support of entrepreneurship, organization and promotion. And it ties the member communities together, including at regular meetings, to find out what's working and not working elsewhere.

"This is a great opportunity to learn from each other," Flanagan said.

Previous Minnesota cities to receive the designation were Faribault, New Ulm, Owatonna, Red Wing, Shakopee, Willmar and Winona, and many more are in the process of seeking the designation, Otaibi said.

While Otaibi emphasized the economic value of investing in downtowns, the value of a vibrant city center goes beyond that. Downtowns are often the places that produce lifelong memories in older generations, and they're the environment where many younger generations want to live, play and open businesses, she said.

"Having that downtown is something that's deeper than just the obvious economic development," she said. "... Nowadays people want an experience, and downtowns provide an experience."

The Minnesota Main Street Program is financed in part through Legacy Act sales tax revenues via the Minnesota Historical Society.

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