ALBERT LEA, MINN. – Downtown stores were packed earlier this month during the first annual "Shop, Sip-n-Stroll" event in this southern Minnesota city.

Merchants reported sales and traffic were running at three or four times the normal level as local residents popped into nearly a dozen stores that served cocktail samples and offered discounts and special promotions.

"Everyone had fun," said Tami Staker, who owns the toy store Whimzy with her husband, Tom. Based on the return rate of her store's $5 promotional coupons, Staker said, she figures that about a third of the shoppers during the event bought something at Whimzy.

It was just one afternoon out of 365 in the year. But the event marked the latest step in a long-term plan to revitalize the downtown of the Freeborn County seat.

As with so many towns and cities across rural Minnesota, the 1960s and '70s saw the arrival of malls that drained retail from the city's core. Big box stores followed in the '80s and '90s.

Even those stores haven't been immune from the changes in retailing, most notably online shopping. Herberger's, an anchor of Northbridge Mall, closed in 2018 when its parent company went through bankruptcy and liquidation. The space sat vacant for several years until a medical clinic opened there in July. The longtime anchor at the other end of the mall, Shopko, also closed in recent years as the chain liquidated.

City and business leaders here launched the Main Street program more than a decade ago with the intention of improving and enlivening downtown.

It started with streetscape improvements: widening the sidewalks, creating pedestrian buffers at corners and replacing traffic lights with stop signs to calm traffic on Broadway, the city's main drag.

"It was like a racetrack" before the changes, Staker said.

The merchants also launched special events meant to position downtown as a place to have fun with friends and family. On "Wind Down Wednesday," once a month during the summer, the city shuts down Broadway and residents can enjoy music, entertainment and food.

But the key to revival is to have a downtown that's thriving even without special events, said Holly Karsjens executive director of the Main Street program. Karsjens said she always thinks about what would attract her to have a fun shopping day with her girlfriends.

The city and its visitors bureau are working to draw even more retailers and restaurants to downtown. When downtowns emptied out, Karsjens said, many service businesses were drawn to the low rents in attractive older buildings.

Although those businesses are valuable, she said, Albert Lea still could add more retail and dining to its downtown mix.

Several new Albert Lea retailers said they believe the COVID-19 pandemic actually has helped generate interest in old-fashioned, brick-and-mortar shopping.

"I feel like a lot of people want to go shopping now," said Austin Perkins, who opened Man Between the Lakes in May with his wife, Miranda. "They want to touch and feel and try on."

There weren't many places to buy men's clothing in Albert Lea other than Walmart, Perkins said. His store also sells leather goods and male-oriented gifts such as knives and wallets.

Kellie Steele opened EJ Mercantile 13 months ago, selling gifts and gourmet treats. She said she believes people are ready to step back from "the hustle and bustle" and enjoy browsing downtown. Events such as the Shop, Sip-n-Stroll are a big help.

"We had such a great response," she said, drawing more than 200 shoppers during the event. "Get people to look at what's in their backyard and the great local businesses."

Shoppers at the event paid $30 for a shopping bag with coupons from participating merchants and other promotional gear, as well as a keepsake mug for the drinks, which ranged from beer and hard cider to cucumber vodka and "dirty paint water" cocktails.

In addition to the sales boost for merchants, the event netted $4,000 for the Main Street program, which will be used to fund future promotions, Karsjens said.

Ann Howe, an Albert Lea resident for 37 years, was one who discovered some new things at the recent event.

"It was very fun," she said. "It was getting people out and about, going into shops I'd never been to and some I hadn't been to in awhile."

John Reinan • 612-673-7402