City tour

Mankato Community Development Director Paul Vogel showed the interior atrium of the Orness Plaza subsidized housing building to city officials from across Minnesota. The 101-unit building was remodeled and modernized with a $10 million federal grant. Photo by Mark Fischenich

MANKATO — With municipal leaders from across Minnesota gathering in Mankato this week, it was an opportunity for local officials to sing the praises of their community.

On Thursday morning, Mankato Community Development Director Paul Vogel and North Mankato Mayor Mark Dehen did it duet style during a two-hour bus tour.

Public art, new roads and urban renewals, building design codes and parks that are jewels. Growth in the valley and hilltop vicinities, those were a few of their favorite amenities.

Sidewalks, bike lanes and trails by the score, parking ramps, flood walls and roundabouts galore; flower pots on street sides along with many trees, those were some more of their favorite amenities.

And when the tour ended, Eden Valley City Council member Janice Sheets summed up her reaction with one word: "Wow."

"We have a lot of things going on in the area, and we're proud of it," Vogel responded. "But it's really based on a collaborative effort with the community."

That was a major theme from Vogel and Deputy Mankato City Manager Alison Zelms to the 20 or so tour participants, in town for the summer conference of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. Mankato has a good working relationship with North Mankato, Blue Earth County, the local school district, townships and private sector developers. The city also has managed to score numerous state and federal grants that helped propel a variety of projects, and voter-approved local sales taxes also spurred revitalization of the community.

The tour started at the civic center, and Vogel spoke of how that facility was the spark that resulted in a dramatically more prosperous downtown that now hosts about 1,500 jobs. The civic center came about from the community-planning effort called Riverfront 2000, which also prompted the creation of Riverfront Park and was the genesis of the sculpture walk and other public art efforts.

"The Verizon Center was the catalyst for a lot of that," he said. "... I can tell you, there was not a lot of activity in the city center before the construction of that center."

The bus also rolled down South Front Street, with its new pedestrian-friendly design and sidewalk bar and restaurant seating, past parking ramps and downtown construction sites, through the Special Services District where property owners pay annual fees for litter removal and snow shoveling.

The tour participants saw the former Blue Earth County Justice Center, now repurposed as a city police/fire station when the county moved its facilities to the east side of town. They saw an old fire station converted into a day care center. They rolled down Sibley Parkway, transformed from industrial land with the help of state grants, and saw the Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota, which was previously an aging brick bus garage.

On the hilltop, they saw numerous new roads such as the extensions of Victory Drive and Adams Street that opened up hundreds of acres for new development.

"Was this all farm land?" Sheets asked while riding past commercial buildings and auto dealerships. "That's sad."

Vogel talked of efforts the city has made to work with the county and townships to avoid leapfrog development.

"What that's done is keep our development compact," he said.

The tourists got a look at the renovated Franklin Rogers Ball Park, prompting one to ask Council member Karen Foreman: "Karen, what's a MoonDog?"

Vogel highlighted the new workforce housing projects the city has managed to attract in recent years and gave a quick tour of the renovated Orness Plaza public housing building, all of which was made possible through federal grants and tax credits.

There was a drive-by of the Walmart distribution center and through the industrial park, but there was also a focus on environmental initiatives such as the city's heavy reliance on renewable energy, geothermal heating and cooling at some facilities, and an ambitious tree-planting program.

Looking at the yet-to-open Adams Street extension, Foreman noted "You can see we already planted the trees."

Being a practical small city official, one man commented: "It must take forever to mow around all those trees."

Another was focused on the intersections on the east side: "You have a lot of roundabouts."

Both Mankato and North Mankato leaders said the roundabouts, once a source of numerous complaints, are now broadly accepted.

Once over the Minnesota River, Dehen took over the narration, showing off North Mankato's growing North Port Industrial Park, the ball field and playground designed so that they're usable by kids with disabilities, and the Caswell Park softball and soccer complexes.

"Last weekend there were 24 teams playing there," Dehen said of the soccer fields.

Minutes later, at the softball complex: "We had 32 teams here at the same time last weekend."

Participants were at times distracted from the official tour by peculiarities of Mankato-North Mankato that weren't addressed. "How many Kwik Trips does your city have?" one asked. (No one knew for sure, but guessed six or seven.)

Dehen also drew attention to the city's parks and its well-maintained residential areas, noting the city-sponsored biannual cleanup days give residents an easy opportunity to cut down on accumulated junk in the neighborhoods.

In the end, Sheets was glad she signed up for the tour.

"I didn't realize the scope of the areas they're working with and how many projects they have at one time," she said. "It opens your eyes. And they're really using all of their resources to the fullest."

She was impressed with how the two cities work cooperatively with the townships, counties and the school district.

"They're really coming together as a community to make this all work."

Eden Valley's population is only about 1,000, and there's not much of a commercial or industrial sector to boost the city's tax base. With much less to work with financially and a much smaller staff, Sheets still found herself intrigued about trying to bring at least some of what she saw back home.

"How they get the grant money, how they use TIF (tax increment financing) money, beautifying your downtown, trails, the park system, shops within walking distance — those are things we wished we had in our small town," she said.

And Sheets offered strongly positive reviews of Mankato-North Mankato after also complimenting St. Peter, the third co-host of the Coalition's summer conference.

"This is a great town," she said. "They work very hard and have very educated people working on these plans."

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