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Charting the course to a healthy Main Street

Tower residents discuss vision for development

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TOWER- What do you think Tower’s Main Street should look like 10, 20, or even 100 years in the future?

That was the question put to a group of more than 50 area residents who attended a visioning session organized by the newly-formed Tower Main Street Committee. The audience consisted of a nice cross section of local residents, business owners, volunteers, city officials, both young and old.

“We don’t have all the answers, that’s for sure,” said Marshall Helmberger, chair of the committee. “We want to hear from everybody.”

The meeting offered a brief update on a number of projects currently in various phases of development in Tower, as well as results from a recent survey conducted by the committee. Over 300 people completed the survey the committee had developed, with the majority of responses from homeowners and area visitors.

Helmberger noted several positive improvements to the area over the past several years: the new Scenic Rivers Medical and Dental Clinic, Vermilion Country Charter School, new retail businesses, the state park campground set to open next spring, the Lake Vermilion Cultural Center (LVCC) project, and the plans for development at the harbor/river area.

Nancy Larson, a LVCC board member, talked about the work that is planned for the new cultural center this fall and winter, as well as the ongoing fundraising efforts.

“Within a year we should be open for business,” she said. “And future plans include a library, community education space, youth and senior activities, and cultural programs.”

Orlyn Kringstad, of Tower Vision 2025, the group working on a housing/mixed use development in the harbor area, spoke about his commitment to the Tower area and his interest in sustainable rural development.

He spoke about the need to think in terms of environmentally sustainable development for the entire region. He said the town home plans for the harbor area are still in the planning phase, and the actual plan will likely include more mixed-use development and smaller townhomes.

“We see the harbor as the gateway to the Tower community,” he said.

Helmberger spoke about the work of the Main Street Committee, which is investigating the option of establishing a redevelopment district. “We believe the entire Main Street area out to the Marjo Motel and old marina would qualify for such a designation,” he said. “And this would open up new funding sources for both redevelopment and new construction.”

The committee is also exploring whether it could make more progress setting itself up as a stand-alone non-profit organization, instead of a city committee. “Tower is moving in the right direction,” Helmberger said. “Though I am sure a lot of you want it to move faster.”

Survey results

Of the more than 360 people who responded to the survey, most pointed to friendliness, walkability, safety, and easy access to recreation as among the most positive elements on Tower’s Main Street. Most saw the lack of variety of retail shopping opportunities as the biggest drawback.

People saw the major challenges facing Main Street as insufficient customer traffic, lack of investment capital, the poor condition of existing building stock, and workforce availability.

As for development priorities, respondents indicated they wanted to see a greater variety of retail businesses, more restaurants, recreational facilities and affordable housing. Respondents also saw arts and culture as a priority.

The idea of establishing a redevelopment district, and a focus on energy-efficient development, was also seen as a high priority.

Envisioning the future

The audience split into small groups to identify development ideas in different categories, and then met again as a large group to share their top five ideas, and then decide on timelines for reaching the goals set.

The group that discussed Main Street enhancements, business development, and employment felt the city needed to prepare for the new influx of visitors with the opening of the state park campground next spring.

A short-term goal was new signage, updating exteriors on businesses, seating areas, and pocket parks.

The need for a new “Welcome to Tower” sign was high on the list, as well as better signage for the Depot and Train Museum.

“We want people driving through to see activity on Main Street,” they said, “making it more likely that they will stop and spend some time in Tower.”

A goal for the next two years was adding more dining options, including more destination type restaurants.

The group talked about the need to view Main Street with fresh eyes.

“You get used to things that need to be fixed up,” said one attendee. “We need new sets of eyes to see what needs to be done.”

The idea of setting a marketing theme of “Historic Tower” was discussed. Steve Peterson, who works for the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund, said there is a new IRRRB program that will help with Main Street improvements.

The housing group discussed construction of new housing in the harbor area, as well as full-service housing for seniors that is walkable to Main Street businesses and the clinic. The idea of a “small house” community was also on the list. Kringstad said such houses can be built using modular design, and perhaps the actual manufacturing of the units could be done in this area. The expansion of affordable housing options in both Tower and Soudan was also seen as a high priority.

The group discussing recreation talked about the opportunities that will be available at the LVCC. Other ideas included picnic areas, Frisbee golf, community gardens, children’s programs, and bringing back more festival events.

The idea of an outdoor recreation business that would offer rentals such as bikes, kayaks, and snowshoes was a high priority, perhaps located at the harbor area.

Steve Wilson brought up the idea of capitalizing on the area’s great diversity of bird life. He noted that Tower-Soudan has the highest number of breeding bird species in the state, as measured by a long-term Audubon Society survey of 9,000 areas in Minnesota.

“Tower is a well-kept secret,” he said. “Birding is one of the fastest-growing recreational pursuits. And this is an attractive group to bring to our area.”

Wilson said Audubon has started a new program, called bird-friendly destinations, and is looking for some smaller cities to add to the program.

“We can add tweety birds to taconite, timber, and tourism,” he said.

The arts/culture/education/history group felt that creating a library space with internet access was a priority, and noted that this was a possibility in the new LVCC building, once it is completed. The idea of setting up educational exhibits to highlight physics, science, and mining was also on the table, as well as focusing on youth arts and music, and highlighting the American Indian culture of our area.

The group would also like to expand on the experiences being offered, adding in movies in the park, craft classes, a travel club, and garden club.

Tower’s new Main Street Committee was set to meet on Aug. 11 to discuss the ideas presented, and to work on setting up timelines for meeting goals. The group will also be looking at the steps required to set up a Main Street Redevelopment zone, which can help facilitate improvements and future development.

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