Afton charm keeps them coming back

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 12, 2011 - 10:27 AM

The Old Village commercial area counts on holidays and other seasonal events to keep businesses percolating in small-town setting.

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At a recent old-fashioned Christmas celebration, activities included a horse-drawn wagon, bonfires and Mariners Choir from White Bear Lake Senior High. Left to right are seniors Alyssa LeClaire, Jordyn Peterson, Haley Tallman and behind her, Troy Ullmann.

Photo: Joy Powell, Star Tribune

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Horses drew a wagonload of revelers through the Old Village in Afton, where gas lamps glowed and holiday lights twinkled. It was a Friday evening in the historic river town, lit up for a winter holiday festival.

In the tiny commercial district, stores are tucked along narrow streets. Six miles from the nearest interstate, Afton's hamlet of boutiques and shops has become a destination for those wanting small-town charm and unique items.

It's a challenge these days for Afton -- and other hamlets in the shadows of the Twin Cities -- to maintain those ideals while facing development pressures in an era of big-box stores.

Holidays, festivals and other seasonal events are the fuel that power the economics of the town's downtown. Merchants know they have to make money while the sun shines in the summer, or when the reindeer fly in December. The town's Village Holiday weekend is the most recent example.

"I've been coming to Afton because of Squire House for 20-some years," Kay Myhrman-Tose said recently of the garden and gift shop. "Afton has wonderful things."

That's what is hoped for by an active business association, which has been working to draw shoppers. Its tiny Old Village is the only commercial area in a city that covers nearly 26 square miles with a mix of farms, stately older homes and new homes on big lots.

Afton has fewer than 2,900 residents and a focus of retaining a rural lifestyle.

Restaurants, retail shops and offices are allowed as long as they fit with Afton's New England-style appearance, with its steep slopes along the St. Croix River.

"The Old Village is not the place for a big- box store but rather an ideal location for speciality shops, services and a destination for tourists," states Afton's comprehensive plan.

An affluent community in southeastern Washington County, Afton relies more than most communities on residential property taxes because it has little industry and limited commerce for its tax base.

Four percent of Afton's land is zoned commercial or industrial, compared to 8 percent countywide. And Afton has slightly more farmland too.

In that regard, Afton resembles Sunfish Lake, North Oaks and Orono in retaining larger lots and rural features.

'A political will'

"There's always been a certain subset of cities that have decided they don't want to urbanize," said John Shardlow, a senior planner with Stantec, formerly Bonestroo of St. Paul.

For them, it works, he said.

"Fundamentally you've got a political will, and it's people who moved to Afton because of its relative exclusivity, large lots, ex-urban lifestyle," he said.

"For downtown Afton, there are people who will go there for the key restaurants, the river access and river-related uses during the season," Shardlow said. "There are people who go there for the fall colors. There are people who do motorcycle and bicycle rides and foot races. There are festivals and cultural events."

Merchants say they are optimistic about the town's future, given the City Council's recent approval of the first phase toward a new levee and news that a local institution, Selma's Ice Cream Parlour, will be reopened.

Paul and Betty Nickerson of Houlton, Wis., recently bought Selma's for $155,000 from CorTrust Bank. It had gone into foreclosure with a previous owner.

"That's exciting," merchant Gloria Popowicz said between ringing up sales on a Friday night. "I hope it just keeps going and going."

Earlier this year, Popowitz bought a century-old building known as the Little Red Schoolhouse in the Old Village. She remodeled and now sells the works of 56 artisans at her Creative Cottage.

The Old Village is a historic district platted in 1855. In addition to Selma's, recent closings included Lerk's Bar & Grill, which until a few years ago had drawn patrons to the same St. Croix Trail location since 1920.

There have been challenges beyond the economy. For years, Old Village property owners have contended with water from slopes west of town, plus the inadequate dike that seeps water from underneath, that affects downtown's old private septic systems.

A low vacancy rate

Many Old Village buildings are historically significant but some are vacant or in disrepair. The city's comprehensive plan warns that the entire community could be negatively affected if they become blighted.

Still, the city has extremely low vacancy rates. And officials keep taxes down by providing fewer municipal services, planners said.

Lisa and Bill Baglio opened Baglio's clothing and gift boutique 26 years ago. When retail sales lagged, they converted a bit of store space into rental office space to stay financially sound, said Lisa Baglio, who spoke at her boutique as she prepared to throw a fashion luncheon at the Afton House Inn, another local institution with staying power.

Lisa Baglio, it seems, knows the secret to making it work. "We've got quite a following," she said.

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038

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