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Group says downtown needs boost

Some see risk of a slip like the 1970s

By Jeffrey Pieters

jpieters@postbulletin.com

Downtown Rochester is strong but "slipping," said members of a newly formed city task force seeking ways to bolster the role of the city's core in daily life.

Twenty-five members of the group, the Rochester Downtown Planning Task Force, met Wednesday for the first time at the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce office. During the next several months, the group will help plan the next stage of growth and development in Rochester's downtown.

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Some task force members said the current state of downtown is reminiscent of the mid- to late 1970s, when retail businesses began trickling out of downtown and going to outlying sites, such as Apache Mall.

"I think we're slipping into another period of closure, in many instances," said Kevin Molloy, president of Marquis Hospitality Group, a unit of Chafoulias Cos.

A big part of the problem, group members said, is perception. Downtown has evolved in people's minds as simply a place to go to work -- not as a place to shop, dine or live.

Leaders should strive for a "critical balance" of uses in downtown, said Hal Henderson, principal of the Hammel Green &; Abrahamson architectural firm.

It will be harder, financially, for government to help, said Gary Neumann, assistant city administrator.

Statewide tax reform two years ago has hampered local government's ability to raise money for projects using tax-increment financing, Neumann said.

At the same time, said Chamber President Kevin Pitzer, that tax reform has made Minnesota, including downtown Rochester, "more attractive to businesses."

In downtown, few storefronts are vacant, something task force members said they consider a positive indicator of the core's overall health.

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At the same time, some said, hotel vacancy rates seem to be rising.

Task force member Cynthia Daube, owner of Daube's restaurant, said she hopes to fashion a downtown "that locals want to come to. There are people who live here who never come downtown."

The task force will seek citizens' comments on downtown, and in particular, may tap younger residents for their views. Most members of the task force are middle-age or older.

Gary Smith, executive vice president for Rochester Area Economic Development Inc., urged fellow task force members to spend time imagining the future they'd like to see -- for downtown and Rochester in general.

"I think the vision will come, if we understand who we are and who we want to be," he said.

In forming the task force, Rochester's leadership has readopted a method used successfully two decades ago, when a similar group helped forge revitalization plans that led to development on three prominent downtown blocks.

Today, as then, Rochester is not the only U.S. city facing decline; but leaders said they believe Rochester has special features -- including a large, stable employer, Mayo Clinic -- that will help it avoid falling into a deep slump.

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