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Oberstar praises downtown revitalization plan

Politics and progress met Wednesday on a hot summer day in downtown Park Rapids.

Rep. James Oberstar took a "windshield" tour of the downtown area, met with community leaders about a proposed revitalization project, then held a "Main Street conversation" with interested citizens.

"Park Rapids has a very big head start investing in its future," Rep. Brita Sailer told the crowd of about 50 gathered in Moose Creek Village in her introduction of Oberstar. "I'm so proud of this. You are positioning us very well" for the future.

Oberstar's visit came on the heels of the city council's approval of the downtown revitalization concept Tuesday night.

The plan isn't simply landscaping, crosswalks and pretty scenery. It's a vehicle to drive economic change. That was the message city leaders got as they listened to a comprehensive proposal drafted by Omaha consultants, which was also presented to Oberstar.

The plan envisions revamping Main Avenue, changes to Park Rapids' waterfront areas to enhance their access and use, a possible hotel/event center on the Fish Hook River, art installations and other improvements to four designated areas.

"There's so much in the plan it'll take us a long time to get there," mayor Nancy Carroll said. She questioned how long it would take to accomplish the lofty goals.

Business leaders attending the council meeting acknowledged there might be "practical limitations" on how fast the city could move forward, but that it should proceed nonetheless.

The timeframe to revamp the downtown area is one of the unknowns, along with the cost. City leaders have approved the plan in theory, but haven't committed the city to any spending yet, and haven't committed to which parts of the plan they will adopt.

Oberstar said he would help the city with the financing hurdles.

"We've got plenty of work and research to do in the next 1½ years," said Main street business owner Ellis Jones, a member of the Downtown Revitalization Committee.

"We do have a significant opportunity here," said Peter McEwen, another business owner and committee member. "There won't be a chance like this in our lifetimes. It's getting more and more competitive out there. We're competing for attention, tourism and dollars."

The plan envisions creating an exuberant downtown economy so people wouldn't be tempted to spend money elsewhere. This component is a serious commitment to preserving the downtown area as a commerce district, city leaders agreed.

The council heard about neighboring cities that permitted urban sprawl, which eventually killed off their downtown economies. Plan supporters don't want that to happen here.

Oberstar praised the city's vision, "civic pride and community involvement." As head of the House Transportation Committee, he promised to see the project through its various phases.

Urban planner Cory Scott, representing the Omaha firm consulted by the city, said he was surprised by the community support and high interest. More than 400 businesses and individuals submitted surveys, giving planners significant input as to what residents desired.

"There was substantial amount of public involvement," he said.

The plan conceives a "city campus" atmosphere that melds long-term goals of both the city and park districts.

Oberstar couldn't resist teasing city officials about aspects of the plan.

"This embracement of center line parking," he said to laughter, "it's nice to see people hold on to tradition."

But Oberstar said that feature retained in the plan represents the city's personality and charm. He agreed that a revitalization plan should capitalize on it.

Scott presented evidence that similar plan have shown retention of businesses and evaporation of inner city vacancy rates for existing buildings.

One concern city leaders have is tearing up the downtown streets to initiate the plan, possibly by 2009. Jones admitted "it creates anxiety, thinking of all of Main street being torn up."

Council member Ted Godfrey questioned whether merchants could withstand another season of road construction. "I looked around this summer and thought it was a little skimpy," he said of the retail business. "Maybe we should give it a year's rest and then go at it."

'People are used to construction," McEwen said. "They can find their way downtown. We just have to have a good strategic plan to stay in business during construction."

McEwen and Jones discussed how Perham merchants successfully survived a downtown renovation by working with contractors at every phase of the construction, providing alley access to stores, drafting clever promotions to capitalize on the work, and embracing the change.

"I'd rather get this out of the way and get on with the future than hold back," McEwen said.

City leaders now have a powerful partner in Oberstar, who said he would monitor the plan's progress.