Is forcing the closure of a small business, such as Legends Bar and Grill, with the hope of attracting a much larger project a responsible move by the city?
While acknowledging the business owner’s hardship, local economic development leaders say that this kind of business “churn” is needed to keep the local economy vital.
“It’s about creating an environment where ultimately all businesses can thrive,” said John Wade, interim president of Rochester Area Economic Development Inc.
That said, as a former business owner, Wade said he completely understands the pain felt by Legends owner Jeff Fieseler. As a business with its own loyal customer base, Wade hoped that Legends could find another Rochester location.
When the City of Rochester announced it was ending Legends Bar and Grill's lease of the city-owned building at 11 4th St SE, it prompted complaints that the small business was being shuttered with no immediate project in the works.
Fieseler said he felt misled when he learned that his building along the Zumbro River was to be demolished and made into “green space” in the short term.
He wrote a letter that was used in a petition to block the city action. In the letter, Fieseler said city officials have been pushing for people to support local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Turning his 9-year-old bar into green space didn't look like the city was practicing what it's preaching.
This is not the first push toward development on the Legends site. In 2015, the Rochester City Council granted Bloom International Realty exclusive rights to discuss a proposed $100 million development on the city-owned riverfront between Second Street Southeast and Fourth Street Southeast. That deal ultimately fell apart.
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After the Bloom project failed, the city took a step back in late 2019 and solicited ideas for the city-owned land, which included the Second Street parking ramp, dubbing the project "Riverfront Reimagined."
Closing one business in order to attract a larger project is not new to downtown.
“Business is a constant course correction,” Wade said. “When we prepare areas that are significant for future development, certain things have to happen.”
Other downtown businesses have been closed to make way for development. Some of those moves paid off for the community, like the closure and demolition of CJ’s Lounge to make way for the new Hilton Hotel at Center Street and Broadway Avenue.
But across the street from where the Hilton now stands, the once popular Michael’s restaurant sits empty. It closed at the end of 2014, and development plans for that site have stalled.
"There’s never a guarantee of success," Wade. said.
The city did find success in 2007 with another large project on First Avenue Southwest. The city purchased the Iridescent House antique store and demolished it to clear the way for the construction of the city-owned, eight-story Minnesota Biobusiness Center at 221 First Ave. SW. That building has since housed many new businesses, some which have outgrown the space to expand in other parts of Rochester.
“Downtown is a living organism that continues to evolve and change,” said Patrick Seeb, executive director of the Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency.
Seeb, who previously worked in St. Paul, where he helped develop its riverfront, pointed out that Legends sits in a key spot as Rochester works toward the goal of developing its riverfront.
“The riverfront in Rochester is largely underappreciated and underused. We have an opportunity …. to start to face the river and to recognize it as an asset,“ he said. “To the extent that the city wants to begin planting a stake in the ground around its commitment for riverfront redevelopment, it has to start with its own assets.”
Seeb said that while Rochester has one of the most robust downtowns in the U.S. for a city of its size, things continue to evolve and leaders must adjust to remain successful.
That could mean adjusting to a “new normal” with significantly fewer downtown workers while the number of downtown residents grows, he said.