ST. CLOUD (WJON News) -- In order for St. Cloud's downtown to grow it needs to be much more walkable, with a lot more mixed uses.  That is the basic takeaway from the downtown Summit featuring two national experts on the topic.

The event was held Monday night at the River's Edge Convention Center.  The room was filled with everyone from business owners, to community leaders, and elected officials all interested in learning more about Mayor Dave Kleis' plan to revitalize the downtown.  Earlier this year he declared it his number one priority.

Kleis told the audience, ' we need to be bold and we need to be aggressive".  He also announced that he will be forming a task force that will focus on improving the downtown.  The city will also be making a bonding request to the Minnesota State Legislature for not this upcoming session, but for the year 2024.  Kleis noted Duluth's $100 million in bonding money and Rochester's $500 million.  While Kleis wouldn't give a dollar figure he said the request will be for more than what Duluth received.

 

Downtown Summit, photo by WJON.com's Jim Maurice
Downtown Summit, photo by WJON.com's Jim Maurice
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Tobias Peter is an expert in housing and walkability.  He also happens to have been a German exchange student who graduated from St. Cloud Tech several years ago.  He says St. Cloud has little residential housing in the downtown except for some rental and public housing.

What the downtown does have is a lot of surface parking lots that are being underutilized.  He used Fargo as an example which has been transforming itself since 2005 by filling up those surface lots with mixed-use developments.

He says downtowns are successful when they have mixed uses, walkability, proximity to water, entertainment, retail, jobs, parking availability, are clean and safe, historic buildings, and have a good vibe.

Peter says St. Cloud's strengths are the university, the hospital, and the county government center, as well as the children's museum that is in the works.

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Christopher Leinberger is a land use strategist.  He says there is a lot of pent-up demand for more walkable urban living and right now St. Cloud isn't providing enough of it.   He says of the top 30 metro cities in the country the most walkable ones are the most successful at attracting college graduates.

Leinberger gave a lot of examples of downtowns that he's worked on recently including Chattanooga, Tennessee.  He says in recent years they've added a new freshwater aquarium, they now have water-based festivals on the Tennesse River, they put in a riverwalk and an arts district.  Leinberger says arts can fundamentally turn around a downtown.

Finally, Leinberger gave the audience a to-do list: have the fire to make the changes necessary, assess the assets of the downtown, make a three-to-five-year plan, set an action plan, include private/public partnerships, and then get to work.

In the audience listening to the presentations was Bob Johnson.  He is the Executive Director of the Paramount Center for the Arts.  He was also recently named the Chairman of the Board for the new Downtown Alliance.

He says the mayor's task force will have a different function than the alliance.

The task force will sort of take a macro view of the downtown while the alliance will have more of a micro view of it that will do what it can in the current time to create some sort of vibrancy in the downtown through events, beautification, and success stories.

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