Pile drivers and fencing will greet visitors to downtown Wayzata this summer -- as well as some new sidewalks, green park areas and outdoor dining.

The picturesque west-metro city on Lake Minnetonka is moving forward on several fronts and is launching an unprecedented effort to spend as much as $100,000 to develop a 10-year plan to optimize its lakefront setting.

City Council Member Andrew Mullin said that for decades, Wayzata's prime location and high land values attracted a healthy mix of shops, restaurants and commercial businesses. But that has changed in the past few years.

The city's former retail hub, the 1960s-vintage Wayzata Bay Center, now stands empty on 16 acres on the edge of downtown. Its one-story brick buildings look like islands in a sea of asphalt.

As businesses left and shoppers went elsewhere, the remaining restaurants and retailers suffered, and things got much worse when the recession hit.

"We really had a tremendous body blow to our retail community," Mullin said. "We saw a lot of retailers leaving, and that was a new experience for us."

Empty storefronts translated into less property-tax income, straining the city's budget and leading to cutbacks.

Mullin has worked on a diverse task force for most of the past year to turn things around, in part by taking a fresh look at the city's signature asset: 3,660 feet of city-owned property along the lake.

"It's the jewel of Wayzata, and it's really underutilized," said Terri Huml, another task force member and owner of Gianni's Steakhouse downtown.

Other communities such as Maple Grove, Plymouth and Excelsior have developed newer shopping areas and are good at promoting themselves, she said, and Wayzata needs to get in the game.

"Wayzata needs this," she said. "It's a big deal."

The lakefront has gorgeous views of the lake and includes a marina, docks, a historic train depot, a public beach and the eastern terminus of the Dakota Rail Regional Trail. But it is separated from the downtown by railroad tracks that are used several times a day.

In spite of that limitation, Mullin and others want the community to suggest better ways to use the shoreline strip, ways that would add safety, improve water quality and preserve history.

"We're not trying to jam a project down the community's throat," he said. "We're trying to get the community to come together and weigh in on the right pacing and priorities for projects that could be done."

Wayzata Mayor Ken Willcox favors the approach but said the city will be able to afford improvements only if it partners with others. The lakefront is important regionally, he said, and certain projects may be of interest to Hennepin County, the Metropolitan Council, Minnehaha Creek Watershed District and perhaps state agencies.

Neighbors won't be forgotten

"If parts of this become a broader effort, like connecting trails and scenic byways, we can leverage more resources," Willcox said.

Mullin agrees that the effort will focus on Wayzata but not exclude its neighbors.

"We want to come up with a 10-year vision for our community that shows connection and benefit to the adjoining communities and to the region," he said.

The City Council approved up to $100,000 last month for the planning effort, to be funded by revenues from slip rentals in the marina and a tax-increment financing district, not from the city's general fund.

The next step is to hire a consultant to set up community brainstorming sessions to discover what people think about the lakefront and ideas they have for any improvements or other changes.

While that process takes off, Willcox said he expects that the Wayzata Bay Center will be demolished in a few months. The city has approved a plan by Presbyterian Homes & Services to replace the shopping center with a phased-in project that eventually will include five blocks of new condos, senior housing, retail stores, office space and a hotel. For Jay Soule, another task force member and general manager of a charter cruise business, the city is on the right track by focusing on its lakefront.

"Kids may be drawn to computer screens and video, but nothing can replace the lake experience," he said. "We're wired uniquely as humans to want to take in sunsets and be next to water."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388