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Excelsior is grappling with how to keep its charm while boosting tourism to drive more money to the city and its businesses.

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Excelsior sees future in its past

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH
  • Star Tribune
  • November 16, 2012 - 11:39 PM

Excelsior's downtown is lined with charming storefronts, with few chain stores or restaurants. Paint colors have to fit an approved "historic" palette. And no neon or digital signs are allowed, leaving its two gas stations to manually change prices.

"What I tell people is, if it hasn't been invented in the 1900s, it isn't allowed here," said Kristi Luger, the city's manager.

The Lake Minnetonka town of 2,400 is grappling with how to keep that charm while revitalizing its downtown and lakefront, prompting debates whether to limit franchises or allow a hotel. Even the words "strip mall" are whispered in talks of a new retail area.

"You can go anywhere for an Arby's -- you can't go anywhere for an Excelsior," said City Council Member John Olson. "Something bad can happen if we aren't vigilant."

With some of the largest redevelopment projects in recent years in the works, the debate is heating up. On Monday, the City Council will discuss how to cash in on its amenities, including the possibility of charging tourists to use the beach. And next week, the Heritage Preservation Commission will formally reject plans for the $12 million four-story boutique hotel, which some say is too large for the town.

Striking a balance

The debate isn't brand new or spared from politics. Excelsior scrapped Hennepin County's contemporary modern glass and steel design for the library last year, opting for the norm, a brick exterior. And this month, two mayoral candidates reflected the pitting philosophies -- one advocating development and the other pushing it to slow down; the former won.

Some don't want to see the city turn into the glitzier Wayzata, which is across the lake from Excelsior.

"We consider ourselves a little town, not a suburb. Wayzata is basically a big business district," said Marianne Stebbins, a resident and business owner who unsuccessfully ran for City Council. "Our concerns are more traffic will come to town."

But city officials want to cash in on Excelsior's uniqueness, reviving the glory days when its legendary amusement parks and grand hotels drew thousands of tourists a year. On Monday, a marketing firm the city hired will present a half dozen or so ideas on how the city can get money from its popularity, such as hiring an event consultant or renovating its yellow, vintage lakeside bandshell that's rarely in use. City leaders are also considering starting a lodging tax that would generate money for tourism-related costs.

"If we're going to play host to all of these people, we want to get something from it," said Luger.

However, the city also wants to keep redevelopment in control.

"We don't want to just draw more people, we want to have better events for residents and our businesses," said Olson, adding of the 1900s amusement park days: "That was a time when Excelsior was just a destination. Now, it's a place where a lot of people live. We don't want to turn it into a circus and zoo."

New and old, side by side

On one end of the town is the grassy plat where the hotel is planned, next to the town movie theater and just yards away from docks where visitors can board boats to cruise the lake. On the other side of town is a large empty car dealership that's expected to become the first grocery store in decades, with rumors buzzing of a Trader Joe's. A brewery opened this summer and now, two new local restaurants are in the works.

Next to the grocery store will be a new strip mall, although "we don't use those words here," Luger said. That retail building spurred a debate recently over whether to limit franchises, even though the city already has a Dunn Bros Coffee shop in town and a McDonald's on its outskirts.

"There's nowhere else in the Twin Cities like Excelsior, or in Minnesota in fact," said Donn Hagmann of Shorewood, who wants the city to control new development and limit franchises. "We should hold on to that uniqueness."

At the landmark Leipold's, owner Darel Leipold, 80, and his wife, LaVerna, have watched the city's ebb and flow over their 41 years there. Inside their cluttered store jammed with odds and ends from hats and cards to antiques and lamp shades, the retired teachers say the city is just experiencing "growing pains."

"You want anything new coming in to fit in and be appropriate," he said.

Across the street at one of Excelsior's newest stores, Brightwater, owner Bill Damberg nixed hot spots in Edina or St. Paul to open there two years ago, drawn to its close-knit community.

"Excelsior is coming into a golden era," he said. "Wayzata has been the star on the lake, and the star is sinking and Excelsior's is rising."

A bell rings as a couple of customers walk through the door of his clothing store and Damberg welcomes them by name. The chatter he hears from customers, he said, indicates most people are supportive of Excelsior's growth. It's a vocal minority, he said, who are fearful of tourism overtaking the town.

"I believe Excelsior was created as the tourism destination for the Twin Cities," he said. But "we won't have a sign saying 10,000 hotels that way."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib

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