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'Attitude' key to success downtown

The more things change, the more they stay the same -- or so it seems, sometimes.

A headline from the March 3, 1983 edition of the Dakota County Tribune claims, "Farmington will pursue downtown redevelopment."

The story goes on to talk of a joint meeting between the Farmington City Council, the planning commission, the housing and redevelopment authority and the chamber of commerce. At this joint meeting, business owners spoke of the difficulty attracting new businesses to what some perceived as a "dead downtown."

The scenario sounds familiar, particularly since just two weeks ago, the downtown commercial district was the subject of a recent workshop in which the city council, planning commission and economic development authority were present. A few business owners were there, too, and one said he had underestimated how quiet the downtown commercial district really was when he opened his business.

Downtown Farmington once boasted a theater, clothing shops, hardware stores and general mercantiles. It was the destination many from Rosemount or Lakeville or Lebanon (now Apple Valley) set out for when shopping. But somewhere along the way, that all changed.

Redeveloping downtown has been an issue for at least a quarter of a century.

But what will make this time around any different? Farmington city administrator Peter Herlofsky says the answer is simple: attitude.

A positive attitude

The days of downtown Farmington as a shopping destination are partially gone because, as shoppers became more mobile with vehicles and now, in today's world, the Internet, they have more options before them, he said. If they cannot find the goods and services they need in one location, they will simply go somewhere else.

However, a positive attitude can go a long way, Herlofsky said. Rather than pointing fingers or complaining, he implores everyone downtown -- business owners or city staff and council -- to take an active, can-do attitude when it comes to redevelopment of the downtown area.

Success, he says, comes through cooperation, communication, trust and pride. If everyone in the downtown commercial district looked not at what the present day conditions are, but helped identify what changes can be made for the greater good of the community, the effort would go a long way.

"The easiest way is to sit around and complain," he said. "The hardest way is to actually take responsibility and do something."

The city of Farmington is not, he said, responsible to fill vacant buildings that are owned by independent businessmen and women. However, the city has made its own investment in the downtown area by opening a new liquor store in the northern section of the commercial district, by building a new city hall near the southern quadrant, and, as of Monday, deciding to upgrade a city-owned commercial property so as to make it more attractive to a potential new business.

He said, the Farmington City Council -- which has long been blamed for many of the downtown woes -- now wishes to take a more active role in the community's economic development. Last week, council members took that first step by taking on the role of economic development authority commissioners.

Measuring success

Downtown Farmington may already be seen by some as a success, Herlofsky said. During the day and into most evenings, parking spots are filled and there is a degree of foot traffic throughout the area. On the other hand, there are empty storefronts, and the district gets pretty quiet on weekends.

To some, Farmington's downtown may be viewed as successful simply because there are still businesses that are open and have stayed open for years and, in one case, generations. Some communities nearby are trying to re-create a "Main Street USA" sort of theme, trying to develop a downtown concept. Farmington is already ahead of that game, which Herlofsky sees as another measure of success.

"Who determines what is a success?" he asked. "I've been in some places where what we have happening her is already considered a success."

The city plans to pursue downtown redevelopment Farmington, though what that means in its entirety is still unclear. However, downtown's redevelopment has been identified as one of the city's top priorities in the 2030 comprehensive plan, and setting the commercial district's boundaries was just the first of many steps that will possibly one day bring more activity downtown.

"It's not going to happen all of a sudden," Herlofsky said. "There are some things we have laid out. Will they work? I don't know, but we're willing to give it a try.

"There's nothing wrong with downtown that a few years of success wouldn't solve."