Inessa Hansen, brimming with attitude and optimism, is about to take her One Sexy Biker Chick motorcycling apparel business to a new level in downtown Shakopee — and become part of a remarkable, perhaps unprecedented, turnaround for a historic but long beleaguered suburban main street.
Long pockmarked with empty storefronts, 40 percent vacant just months ago, Shakopee’s downtown is close to full. And with the kind of spots, like a vintage furniture shop, that civic leaders have craved.
“People have called me or stopped by asking for space, looking to buy and maybe remodel a building, asking all the typical questions you have when you’re kicking tires,” said Duane Wermerskirchen, a longtime jeweler and commercial property owner. Far different, he said, from previous spurts, when it was “one step forward, one step back.”
It feels like vindication for Mayor Brad Tabke, who championed a series of tax abatements to lure thousands of jobs to town. He sees a direct connection between the big new employers and mostly small, independent merchants moving to the main street corridor, taking over dormant properties and bolstering the city’s tax base.
Landing the big companies “has created a buzz, and that’s causing people to give Shakopee a closer look,” Tabke said.
Civic leaders agree that what’s happening in Shakopee goes beyond just that. But that infusion did precede the downtown revival, and Tabke said the results have been obvious.
Turtle’s Bar & Grill, a mainstay in downtown Shakopee, recently hosted a meeting of Datacard employees, Tabke said. The multinational is moving from Minnetonka this fall. Wermerskirchen said he now sees new corporate arrivals lunching and working on their laptops in downtown restaurants.
Still, Sarah Lindgren and her sister, Kim, never mentioned the jobs influx as a lure. They figured they could fill a void in the market with their vintage decor store, Amour Cru — a big change from the testostorone-laced feel the area once had.
“We feel like it’s a whole new thing for the area,” said Lindgren of their shop, which opened in June in a storefront that had been empty for two years.
A rural wine bar
For Shakopee, it all began last fall when 10 business owners took city officials to a wine bar in tiny, rural New Prague, declaring, “This is the kind of thing we need.”
“It started a conversation about how we all could work together to get these kinds of businesses,” said Economic Development Coordinator Samantha DiMaggio, who was on the field trip. DiMaggio had been hired in 2013 after a newly elected City Council decided to fill the job, which had been vacant for seven years.
With the help of business owners, the city started keeping closer tabs on vacancies to merchants and brokers scouting the market. City leaders met with business owners considering Shakopee and visited others after they arrived.
“That’s what these people want to see, that the community they’re going to really wants them there,” DiMaggio said.
The city tweaked its loan program to help businesses finance exterior building improvements after asking existing property owners why they weren’t using it. This year it has provided more than $102,000 to new and existing business owners in the main street corridor.
Hansen, the self-proclaimed biker chick, and her husband, Kyle, got $36,000 under the city program to help finance an ambitious rehab of a vacant 1880s-era building they bought for their new store, which will open in August.
She founded One Sexy Biker Chick four years ago, selling mostly women’s motorcycling apparel at biking rallies and a temporary holiday store at Burnsville Center. The new store in Shakopee will be called For the Journey Emporium, and will have men’s and women’s apparel.
“It was between this and the Mall of America,” she said. They liked Shakopee’s proximity to attractions like Canterbury Park and Mystic Lake Casino and its small-town ethos. “We saw a lot of potential for growth,” she added.
The Hansens and Lindgrens have stores that address a key shortcoming in Shakopee’s main street corridor. A study early this year by Minneapolis-based Hoisington Koegler Group Inc. said the downtown merchant mix — including a bait and tackle shop, a men’s clothing store and a handful of bars — was too male-oriented.
In addition to stores that appeal to women, the study recommended a brewpub or wine bar. DiMaggio said discussions with a few operators are ongoing.
“We’re waiting for someone to pull the trigger with the space that we have left,” she said.
A coffeehouse also ranks high on the wish list, she said. The goal is a larger mass of merchants that encourage people to come, linger and browse through other shops.
“We’ve had people tell us that they come to Shakopee to drop off their kids at Valleyfair and then they leave until it’s time to pick them up. That really bothers me.”
Far from alone
Shakopee officially became a designated member of the Minnesota Main Street economic development program, joining Red Wing, Winona, Faribault, New Ulm, Owatonna and Willmar. Organized by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, the program helps communities revitalize their historic downtowns.
Emily Northey, who oversees the program, said it’s unusual to see a rebound happen so fast.
Having existing merchants on board is key to a district’s revival, Northey said.
“I would hope that all business owners that move into spaces talk to their future business neighbors and find out what it’s like,” she said. “If they are satisfied with the way things are going or are headed, that can do a lot.”
Shakopee, through its chamber of commerce, also formed its own Main Street chapter last fall. The group has organized promotional events, such as a mini-golf tournament in which customers test their putting skills on holes set up in stores, with a chance to win coupons to use at local merchants.
The group plans to develop welcome packages for new businesses, as well as wayfaring and beautification projects for the main street corridor.
Wermerskirchen said Tabke and DiMaggio have helped solidify a working relationship between the city and business community.
“When you’re an independent business owner, you’re working 60 hours a week. It’s hard to find the time to help,” he said. “You need somebody else to stir the pot.”