MANKATO — If enthusiasm and big ideas can overcome financial practicalities, one of Mankato's oldest business districts and 86 acres of adjacent quarry land are in store for some major changes.
The first step in planning the future of Old Town, the historic business strip on North Riverfront Drive, began Tuesday night with a public meeting that drew an energetic crowd of nearly 100.
"If you have an empty seat at your table, wave your hand," shouted Megan Flanagan, director of the Civic Center Partnership, as late arriving people stood at the back of the Eagles Club Ballroom, scanning the crowded room for a vacant chair.
Mankato Community Development Director Paul Vogel, after setting up more tables and chairs, began the meeting — one of two this week to kick-start the drafting of the Old Town Master Plan.
"It's really going to be a reflection of what we hear from you," Vogel told the crowd of business owners, residents of the Old Town area, and interested citizens from both Mankato and North Mankato.
And over the next 90 minutes, they heard plenty. For example, here's just a sampling of the ideas for the quarry, which the owners of the Coughlan Companies recently revealed they are done mining and ready to offer, at least in part, for community use ... .
Build a baseball park. Relocate the Blue Earth County Fairgrounds there. And put in a sports facilities complex for multiple sports. Also, a mountain biking park with a rock-climbing area. And a high-tech business park. Or maybe a new thoroughfare so that Riverfront Drive through Old Town can become a less noisy, more pedestrian-friendly lane.
And there was plenty more for the quarry land: a farmers market, a multi-use development of residential and commercial buildings, a drive-in movie theater, a marina with a steamboat, a marina with restaurants on floating pylons, an ice arena, an outdoor skating park, and a garden-filled park.
By the end of the night, Vogel might have received enough ideas to create a master plan longer than "War and Peace," and he'll be hearing more at the second opportunity for public input at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, also at the Eagles Club Ballroom.
"We look at the ideas and we look at the input and we look at what the common themes are," he said of the next step in the process.
After that, another public hearing is planned for early March to discuss those themes, and then the draft plan will be written, including tactics for implementation of some of the main ideas. Following a final public meeting and the writing of a final plan, it will be brought to the City Council — probably in June.
Despite the voluminous and wide-ranging input provided at the meeting that will need to be boiled down by Vogel and his staff, he was clearly pleased by the level of interest in a district that struggled for decades before undergoing something of a renaissance in recent years.
"Very happy to see the level of turnout and the level of engagement," he said.
While the group let their imaginations run freely when thinking about prospective uses of the relatively dramatic and wide-open landscape of the Coughlan quarries, they also dug into more humdrum challenges facing the Old Town business district. Many suggested pedestrian improvements such as traffic lights to make it easier to cross Riverfront Drive, which carries 17,000 vehicles a day. Some spoke of the need to reduce the vacancy rate of Old Town buildings. Others called for wider sidewalks or more pedestrian-friendly alleyways, public restrooms, more owner-occupied housing along Second Street (and fewer college-age renters), adding a parking ramp behind Tune Town, and slowing down traffic on Riverfront.
Many suggested a pedestrian bridge connecting Riverfront Park to the quarry (with at least a couple suggesting a suspension bridge for walkers all the way across the Minnesota River to North Mankato).
There was plenty of talk of aesthetics, with deep affection and strong support expressed for preservation of the the century-old buildings in Old Town. Numerous attendees wanted old-style Christmas lights along Riverfront, unique street signage for the district, and mini-parks where land is available.
And there were some larger aesthetic suggestions, including colored spot-lighting or murals to dress up the massive silos near the historic flour milling complex now operated by Hubbard Feeds, murals on the flood walls in the area, more sculptures and other public art.
As the event continued and attendees were asked to prioritize by table, pedestrian improvements, the fate of the quarry land, and historic preservation were common priorities. But other tables talked about parking issues, a rebranding of the area from "Old Town" to the "North End" district, and the need to boost the use of Riverfront Park and strengthen its connection to Old Town.
Finally came the "what is your big idea for the area?" question, which conjured up trolley cars, rooftop restaurants, a boardwalk promenade (complete with vendors) above the flood wall, quarry-based housing with river views and — in a suggestion that might have gone a bit beyond the scope of the Old Town Master Plan — light rail transit to the Twin Cities.
Although some attendees were having fun letting their imaginations run wild, the Old Town district appears to be fairly brimming with confidence compared to its depressed state for much of the recent past.
"It's just exciting to see the momentum really shift just in the last five years," said Dain Fisher, a real estate developer and owner of Old Town's Bent River Outfitters.
Businesses are coming to Old Town and succeeding rather than constantly coming and going like they did in the past, Fischer said.
Andrew Breck, who lives on Spring Street, said the district has reached a point that he can walk to get most everything he needs.
"It's just fun to see that growth and see what's happening and what the future potential is," Breck said.
Antje Meisner, an interior designer who serves on the Twin Rivers Council for the Arts, said her primary interest is the public art and urban design aspects of the Master Plan. But Meisner doesn't discount the possibility that even some of the biggest ideas offered Tuesday night might, eventually, actually come to be.
"You can feel the excitement," she said. "... The people in Mankato take a lot of pride in their town and will really work to get things done."