The downtowns of Mankato and North Mankato, along with the bridge connecting them, could be agleam in a few years under a new decorative lighting plan proposed for both cities.

From South Front Street to Old Town to Belgrade Avenue, from ground level light strips to illuminated building facades to strings of bulbs floating overhead, the Lighting for Connectivity Plan would bring a glimmering new look to the city centers.

“As our city center keeps evolving, I think the lighting is the next step in how we can build that pathway through the city center that everybody wants to visit and live in and do business in,” said Stacey Straka.

Straka was the chair of the City Center Partnership’s Aesthetics and Livability Committee during the development of the lighting plan. The organization, created by Greater Mankato Growth and the city of Mankato, hired consultant Schuler Shook to develop the plan.

A firm that specializes in architectural lighting, Schuler Shook is responsible for the lighting design on Chicago’s Riverwalk, the Pillsbury Mill Building in Minneapolis, Millennium Park in Chicago, the Iowa State Capitol, Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall, Landmark Plaza in St. Paul, Rochester’s First Street Plaza and hundreds of other projects across America and in Australia.

The firm, which has a Minneapolis office, also has done work at Minnesota State University and on the grounds of Bethany Lutheran College.

“So they were familiar with our community,” said Straka, who is the creative director at the Mankato branding firm PresenceMaker.

The recently finalized plan, which has been forwarded to staff of both cities for review, sets an ambitious long-term course for North Mankato’s Belgrade Avenue and Mankato’s Entertainment District, the Mankato Civic Center complex and Old Town.

Schuler Shook starts at ground level, proposing raising by a couple of inches the limestone blocks that define the downtown plazas of Mankato and placing lighting beneath them. Spotlighting would be directed at sculptures, flexible tube lights would illuminate benches from below, accent uplights would dress up parking garage columns and building facades.

Color-changing “wash lights” and accent lights would make the civic center glow purple on MSU Mavericks hockey nights with other hues highlighting concerts, holidays and other events.

Wishbone poles would light the Civic Center Plaza, and strings of “festoon” lights or arched light bars might be strung over that plaza or the Cherry Street Plaza near South Front Street.

Overhead cantenary lighting could be strung above the Belgrade Avenue business district, angled street lights could better define the street, and a lighted overhead gateway could announce visitors’ arrival in North Mankato, according to Schuler Shook.

In Old Town, murals would be illuminated, the massive mural coming to the silos this fall would receive accent lighting, and alleyways would be brightened.

Color-changing tubes would be added to the light poles along the Veterans Memorial Bridge between the two cities, and color-changing lights would illuminate the underside of the bridge.

While similar concepts would tie the various areas together, each would have unique features. In Mankato, for instance, the Entertainment District would be particularly vibrant, Old Town artsier, and the central business district more subdued, Straka said.

The idea grew from a modest beginning several years ago with the renovation of South Front Street to make it more pedestrian-friendly and promote sidewalk dining. The City Center Partnership strung purple lights in the new trees planted on South Front to celebrate the project’s completion, the arrival of the Minnesota Vikings for training camp and the upcoming Mavericks hockey season.

“Everybody loved it,” Straka said. “It just wasn’t sustainable.”

The low-cost lights weren’t made to last, and Schuler Shook was enlisted to develop a more comprehensive and durable system of lights.

While much of the plan focuses on public streets, sidewalks, plazas and bridges, it also includes lighting enhancements for private property, including the historic Graif Building, the outdoor food truck hub in Old Town and the Mankato post office, which the U.S. Postal Service is in the process of selling for redevelopment.

“So we’ll be putting the plan in front of developers, too,” Straka said. “That’s an important part of it.”

Mankato city staff is examining the plan, and the City Council is expected to be asked to endorse it for potential implementation when street projects and other public improvements are scheduled.

“It’s basically kind of a guide, both for public and private property,” said Community Development Director Paul Vogel.

Before it gets to the council, staff will be scrutinizing practical matters such as cost, compliance with building codes, weather resistance, availability of electrical power and compatibility with city services such as snow removal.

“It has to be something maintainable and that has a life expectancy,” Vogel said.

But the lighting plan fits with a city goal of improving connectivity between isolated sectors of the City Center, a goal that previously prompted sidewalk improvements, skyways and new signs downtown.

“Signage or lighting can be some of those design aspects that confer connectivity,” he said.

And dressing up the city with light isn’t a new idea. It was an element in Mankato’s strategic planning process in the 1980s, known as “ACT 2000.”

“There was an initiative to light up some of the major buildings,” Vogel said. “As you come across the river, you can see the Courthouse lit up, you can see St. Peter and Paul’s lit up.”

While the price tag for implementing the entire lighting plan isn’t provided in the report, it does include preliminary estimated costs for the hardware that would be involved. Linear lighting tubes range from $60 to $310 per foot. Small accent lights can cost as little as $36 with larger light structures reaching several thousand dollars. The price estimates provided by Schuler Shook typically double when installation fees are included.

Any of the lighting plan’s elements that involve substantial expense might require financing beyond city tax dollars, particularly if the added expense was mainly related to aesthetics, Vogel said: “That’s something we’d traditionally look for partnership dollars.”

Randy Zellmer, chairman of the board at the City Center Partnership, believes components of the plan have a strong chance of becoming a reality because they can enhance the experience of people coming to downtown Mankato at a relatively low cost.

While Zellmer doesn’t expect the entire plan to be implemented in the near future, elements of it could begin to blink on sooner rather than later.

“It doesn’t have to be expensive,” he said. “And the intent is that you don’t have to make all these changes at one time.”

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