On a balmy July night, Jeff Will pointed up at a building on the corner of First and Broadway in Jordan. A dance studio was the most recent tenant but the building has been vacant for six months.
“Do you see that?” the lifelong Jordan resident and City Council member asked, tilting his arm to show how the building leans a little.
The off-kilter structure is a reminder of a roadblock to downtown revitalization, he said: Who’s going to pay $150,000 for an old brick building that needs structural repairs when a new one can be built for less?
Beautiful old buildings, arguably Jordan’s biggest asset — 15 properties are listed on the National Register of Historic Places — also may be its greatest challenge, he said.
“Some of these buildings become a financial challenge, and that’s my point,” he said. “Is that a city hall problem, or is it just a matter of finding the right person to fall in love with it?”
On this particular evening a small troop of residents, business owners and city staff, members of Jordan’s downtown advisory committee, strolled the nearly deserted streets.
They noted what needs improvement and asked questions: Should there be a sign here? Would it look nice to extend fencing by the bridge? Whose job is it to weed beneath the trees on the boulevard?
Since April, the committee has been weighing the impact of small updates — benches, informational kiosks, decorative paving — to accompany $1.6 million worth of fixes being made next summer, including three blocks of new roads and sidewalks.
The city also is trying to make major changes. Officials used grant money to develop the 2013 Downtown Jordan Master Vision. The 90-page document, filled with recommendations, maps and cityscapes, is intended to guide planning decisions.
Each year, the city puts $50,000 toward implementing the plan, said interim city administrator Tom Nikunen.
But in trying to make updates, the city faces the same uphill battle as many other small, older downtowns in their quest to become a Stillwater or a Northfield.
One problem is the is the “lack of vitality,” said Thom Boncher, City Council member.
Salon owner Jeanna Orris is already in love with the possibilities in quaint Jordan, population 6,300 and growing. But “it needs a lot,” she said of the city center. “Have you seen all the empty buildings?”
Nikunen countered that there are between four and six vacant buildings once recently sold or leased properties are eliminated.
“We’d like zero, but it’s improving,” he said.
Orris, owner of Studio J salon, said that while there are plenty of antique shops around, other businesses are notably missing: a family restaurant, a dry cleaner, an ice cream shop, maybe a place to buy a birthday present.
“You know, like those cute little things that families do together in small towns?” she said.
There’s work to do, agreed committee member Vicki Anderson, owner of The Vinery Floral, Home and Garden: “I win the lottery, I’d come down here and redo the whole place.”
Locals aren’t the only ones to see potential in the city’s quiet streets. “They have a fabulous number of preserved buildings in downtown Jordan,” said Kathleen Klehr, director of the Scott County Historical Society.
More remarkable: the buildings are actively being used, she said.
Many of Jordan’s brick buildings are more than 120 years old. Bars, antique stores and coffee shops now inhabit what used to be a harness shop, an opera house, even a cigar factory.
Some properties, like Pekarna Meat Market or the Jordan Baseball Park, known to generations as the Mini-Met, are landmarks that remain nearly unchanged since the 1890s.
The right mindset
As one of two city planners in Jordan, Andrew Barbes likes to talk about his hopes for the future of downtown. Even problems — like vacancies — can be seen as opportunities, he said. “That’s the kind of mindset you have to have.”
Anderson said tourists often ask her for directions to sites like the waterfall or the “candy barn.” It happens 20 times a week, she said.
Visitors come to Jordan randomly today, Barbes said, but one day it could be a destination. “This town, I just see it as a growing city that’s also trying to hold onto its classic values, you know?” he said.
A positive sign: housing permits this year are outpacing last year’s numbers, Barbes said.
And high hopes are pinned on plans to bring a brewery downtown. A brewer wanted to use the historic Jordan Brewery for the operation, but the site was recently damaged by flooding.
Instead, the microbrewery will be located in the now-vacant library. “The city is looking to help out a new vendor any way we can,” he said. “And it’s beer, so it never hurts.”
Jordan also is encouraging downtown revitalization through a matching grant program, instituted in 2010, which has helped businesses make $100,000 worth of updates, said Joanne Foust, a planning consultant hired by the city.
Will said business owners do want to see dramatic changes, but a recent survey shows that keeping costs low is their first priority.
Orris is hopeful, but said she doesn’t know how much the City Council can really do to encourage new businesses to come to town.
“I do feel like it has so much potential. It’s going to get better,” she said. “It’s just going a little bit slower than I’d like it to go.”