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Beyond the laughter

By Matt Russell

mrussell@postbulletin.com

It’s a bitterly cold Friday night in downtown Rochester, but several restaurants are packed. At Goonie’s Comedy Club, the first show of the night is sold out. It’s a successful night by some measures, but for some people, there’s still something missing downtown.

"There’s not as many options as you’d like to see," says 24-year-old Brian Haskins of Rochester, who was part of the crowd at Goonie’s.

Changes are in the works downtown, but people like Haskins who hope for more entertainment options beyond bars and restaurants will have to be patient: The effort to revitalize downtown will be a methodical, step-by-step process, and complex details are still being worked out.

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In the near future, construction is set to start this spring on what could be the most crucial project in downtown’s turnaround: A pedestrian plaza on First Street Southwest between the Galleria Mall and Mayo Clinic’s Gonda Building.

"We have to get that plaza built, and it has to be spectacular," said Elisha Anderson, spokeswoman for the Rochester Downtown Alliance, a partnership founded in 2005 that receives funding from Mayo Clinic, the city of Rochester and downtown businesses.

The goal for the plaza, Anderson said, is to become the first place people think about when they wonder what’s going on downtown. The key to success is not just building the plaza, she added, but making sure there’s a constant flow of events, including markets, movies, music and events for kids. A successful plaza could also help nearby restaurants and stores, which could possibly expand weeknight and weekend hours if foot traffic increases.

"You need the people first," she said.

Anderson also pointed to the University of Minnesota’s plans to start holding classes downtown this year and, a bit further down the road, the promise of added jobs from the planned downtown bio-business center, as positives for the area.

In the meantime, she said, getting more entertainment options downtown depends on more entrepreneurs like Klampe stepping forward.

Looking back at when he opened Goonie’s last year, Klampe said despite trying, he couldn’t get financial assistance from the city or the Rochester Downtown Alliance to help him get started.

"It was just like, ‘Good luck,’" Klampe said.

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Having a low-interest loan program for locally owned businesses looking to bring new life downtown could encourage more entrepreneurs, Klampe said. Bob Rittenhouse, who is in the process of finding backers for a blues club he wants to open downtown, agreed a loan program could help him move ahead with his plans.

There is no local program with money available to help new businesses get started downtown, acknowledged Sandy Keith, executive director of the Rochester Downtown Alliance.

At the same time, Keith said his organization is in the process of figuring out how to generate a fund that could have money for two main purposes: A loan program for businesses and an economic development fund that could be used for buying properties to turn over to developers.

"It’s a complicated process, and we’re trying to put this together," Keith said, noting that questions still remain about where the fund’s money would come from, what guidelines would direct its use, and how it would be administered. "Obviously, we’re not anywhere near it yet."

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