Albert Lea is reaping the rewards of his ten-year efforts to revitalize downtown


ALBERT LÉA, MINN. – Downtown stores were packed earlier this month at the first annual “Shop, Sip-n-Stroll” event in this southern Minnesota city.

Traders reported that sales and traffic were three or four times higher than normal, with local residents entering nearly a dozen stores that served cocktail samples and offered special discounts and promotions.

“Everyone had fun,” said Tami Staker, who owns the Whimzy toy store with her husband, Tom. Based on the return rate of her store’s $ 5 promotional coupons, Staker said, she estimates that about a third of shoppers at the event bought something from Whimzy.

It was just one afternoon in 365 a year. But the event marked the latest step in a long-term plan to revitalize the downtown Freeborn County seat.

As with so many rural towns and villages in Minnesota, the 1960s and 1970s saw the arrival of malls that drained retail businesses from the heart of the city. Big box stores followed in the ’80s and’ 90s.

Even these stores have not been immune to changes in retailing, especially online shopping. Herberger’s, an anchor of the Northbridge Shopping Center, closed in 2018 when its parent company went bankrupt and went into liquidation. The space remained vacant for several years until a medical clinic opened there in July. The long-standing anchor at the other end of the mall, Shopko, has also closed in recent years when the chain was liquidated.

City and business leaders started the Main Street program over a decade ago with the goal of improving and enlivening the downtown area.

It all started with improvements to the streetscape: widening sidewalks, creating pedestrian buffers at corners, and replacing traffic lights with stop signs to calm traffic on Broadway, the city’s main thoroughfare.

“It was like a race track” before the changes, said Staker.

Traders have also launched special events intended to position the city center as a place to have fun with friends and family. On “Wind Down Wednesday”, once a month during the summer, the town closes Broadway and residents can enjoy music, entertainment and food.

But the key to renewal is having a thriving downtown area even without special events, said Holly Karsjens, executive director of the Main Street program. Karsjens said she is always thinking about what would attract her to a fun day of shopping with her girlfriends.

The city and its Visitors Bureau are working to attract even more retailers and restaurants to the downtown area. When city centers emptied, Karsjens said, many service companies were drawn to the low rents of attractive old buildings.

While these businesses are valuable, she said, Albert Lea could still add more retail and restaurant businesses to his downtown mix.

Several new retailers Albert Lea have said they believe the COVID-19 pandemic has actually helped spark interest in old-fashioned brick and mortar purchases.

“I feel like a lot of people want to shop now,” said Austin Perkins, who opened Man Between the Lakes in May with his wife, Miranda. “They want to touch and smell and try.”

There weren’t many places to buy men’s clothing in Albert Lea other than Walmart, Perkins said. His store also sells leather goods and men’s gifts such as knives and wallets.

Kellie Steele opened EJ Mercantile 13 months ago, selling gourmet gifts and treats. She said she thought people were ready to take a step back from the “hustle and bustle” and enjoy browsing downtown. Events such as the store, Sip-n-Stroll are of great help.

“We had such a great response,” she said, attracting over 200 buyers to the event. “Get people to look at their backyard and the great local businesses.”

Buyers at the event paid $ 30 for a shopping bag with coupons from participating merchants and other promotional equipment, as well as a souvenir mug for drinks, which ranged from beer and cider to vodka. with cucumber and “dirty paint water” cocktails.

In addition to increased sales for traders, the event brought in $ 4,000 for the Main Street program, which will be used to fund future promotions, Karsjens said.

Ann Howe, a 37-year resident of Albert Lea, discovered new things at the recent event.

“It was a lot of fun,” she said. “It was getting people out, going to stores that I had never been to and some that I had not been in a while.”

John Reinan • 612-673-7402

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