Downtown Farmington is at a crossroads.
Some residents want fewer vacancies, varied businesses and more people — an energetic atmosphere that still has small-town charm.
But those living in new housing developments to the north have no reason to drive downtown. They shop in other suburbs on the commute home, favoring convenience over nostalgia.
The result is a downtown in transition, ripe for revitalization, city officials said. Farmington is working with a local planning firm to formulate a blueprint to guide future development, including small projects to complete now and more substantial ones later.
The key will be to stay true to downtown’s past — a city center built to serve a farming community and divided by a railroad — while creating a plan that meets the needs of current residents, said Adam Kienberger, Farmington’s community development director.
“How can downtown remain relevant to the rest of Farmington?” Kienberger said. “You can just let it be — or is it time for the community to proactively take a look at downtown and decide what it wants?”
Kienberger is hoping for the latter, scheduling public open houses and working with a task force to determine wants and needs. The task force will recommend a final concept and the City Council will vote on it this spring, but the redevelopment process could take five to 10 years, he said.
This first phase allots $40,000 to studying and planning. Implementation comes later.
That price tag is typical for such a project, and it may be a bargain for cities, said Tom Fisher, director of the Metropolitan Design Center at the University of Minnesota.
“It’s not necessarily that expensive, and it can really bring a huge payback in terms of a community having a vision and a direction that can be their economic future,” he said.
Brewpubs and boutiques?
The plan drafted so far includes new commercial buildings and housing developments — mostly apartments and townhouses — near the Vermillion River, west of downtown. Connections to nearby trails, an open farmers market structure and a riverwalk are included as well, said Jeff Miller, a planner with Hoisington Koegler Group, the firm hired by Farmington.
But amid the optimism, downtown Farmington has its share of challenges.
Janie Tutewohl, task force member and owner of four local businesses, recently purchased and gutted a downtown building with her three sisters to create Town Sports, a sporting goods store. Though downtown has vacancies, “there’s not as much space available as it appears,” she said, since many empty structures need extensive work or don’t fit businesses’ needs.
Another problem: Residents who live to the north “are not even aware of or don’t find downtown convenient,” Miller said.
A vision of what residents want downtown is emerging, Miller said. Task force members mention green space, a grocery store and coffee shop and more family-oriented businesses. A cluster of boutiques to make the area a destination has also come up, he said.
Everyone has their own ideas of what Farmington needs.
“I think a brewpub is in order,” Tutewohl said. “I think it’s really cool to think we could have some kind of music venue.”
Model downtowns mentioned by various community members include Hastings, Hopkins, Rosemount and Stillwater.
Shakopee has recently had success re-energizing its downtown, adding 26 new businesses in three years, said Samantha DiMaggio, Shakopee’s economic development coordinator.
The city made a new downtown plan three years ago and is moving into implementing it, she said. The process was “excellent, but it definitely left us with more questions than answers,” she said.
The implementation stage is often the hard part for cities, Fisher said. But first the city must finish its plan.
“There’s … a lot of hometown camaraderie in Farmington,” Kienberger said. “People say, ‘Yeah, we can go shop in other communities, but we really like to patronize our local businesses.’ ”