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Red Wing's core problem

When Red Wing Mayor Donna Dummer formed a task force last October, its goal was short-term: help fill empty storefronts in downtown Red Wing.

After several meetings, however, the group -- comprised of local civic and business leaders and real estate agents -- undertook a more ambitious task. Using existing surveys and studies, they created a vision for downtown's future. Their hope is to ensure an economically healthy downtown, said the group's Chairman, Paul Redding.

Now, seven months after it was formed, the group is pitching its plan to city government and local business groups, hoping Red Wing's key players jump on board.

So far, the plan has been well-received. But there is one more body to impress -- the Red Wing City Council, on April 28.

The plan is three-pronged. To start, the group contends that what is good for downtown is good for Red Wing.

"It's the apple-is-only-as-strong-as-the-core theory," Dummer said, adding that if downtown is successful, prosperity should radiate outward.

The second point they make is "downtowns are hot," Redding said. "People like the hubbub."

Kris Nelson, director of neighborhood planning for community revitalization at the University of Minnesota, agrees.

"I think downtowns are more attractive, to serve a different function than they have historically," Nelson said. "Downtowns serve as a place for restaurants and entertainment, and as a place to live."

Which is the task force's third premise.

According to a 2006 study done by Dick Paik of the marketing firm ZHA, Red Wing's population is expected to grow only 0.2 percent in coming years. Yet, the number of households is expected to grow 1.8 percent because of growth among young professionals and retirees.

"Young people and empty nesters find downtowns attractive," Nelson said.

The task force is hoping to make Red Wing more attractive to those groups, said Randal Hemmerlin, Red Wing Housing and Redevelopment Authority executive director and a spokesman for the group.

Hemmerlin said a portion of Red Wing's new housing should be built downtown. The pitch is if empty nesters and young singles live downtown, they're more likely to spend downtown.

The catch, however, is that part of what may attract those populations -- restaurants and entertainment -- are lacking in Red Wing, according to the ZHA study. The study said the lack of eating and drinking establishments represents a "missed opportunity."

Since that study, and since the task force assembled, a number of empty spaces downtown have been filled. Greg and Sarah Norton plan to move Norton's restraurant from Bay City to main Street in Red Wing. And local developer Carol Hedin has unveiled plans to refurbish the building next door.

Also, Runnings Farm and Fleet has filled the once empty County Market building.

Yet, other downtown locations remain empty, including the former movie theater at 325 Bush St., most recently home of the Alibi Bar. And little progress has been made on the dilapidated Fleischmann's building on Broad Street since a developer bought it in 2004.

In addition to blighted buildings and empty storefronts, Hemmerlin said the city should ask itself what is the best use is for each piece of property. He urges the city work to create streetscapes, where empty lots and parking lots or "sawtooth" building placement is filled in.

"What that means is we become like the dentist. We fill in the gaps," he said.

Developers have not been jumping at downtown properties, however. The problem, said Red Wing Planning Director Brian Peterson, is that purchasing property is often tougher downtown than on the outskirts.

"They don't want to be bogged down in complicated acquisitions," Peterson said.

He said communities often have to give developers incentives such as tax increment financing to look downtown.

Another obstacle is that many large retail stores aren't attracted to smaller communities like Red Wing.

"It's important to face the brutal facts," Redding said. "We're just not going to attract a first-tier retailer."

Nevertheless, he and Hemmerlin say there are plenty of businesses that can thrive in Red Wing. The key, Hemmerlin said, is to give retailers and developers options.

"Now we know we have challenges that go with downtown." Hemmerlin said. "We've got some older buildings, and they have some obsolete floor plans."

Part of the group's pitch is that the city should acquire sites it believes important and dress them up for development. Hemmerlin has suggested that the HRA, Port Authority, the city, local foundations and businesses chip in to create a $3 million budget to make it happen.

For example, he said money made from land the HRA currently has on the market could go to the budget.

So far, the ideas encased in the task force's proposal have been met with open arms. If the City Council adopts the plan, it won't authorize any building acquisition but would serve as a broad vision with specific strategies.