Two Carver County cities are hoping to reel in more out-of-towners looking for a weekend escape.

Victoria, a city of about 8,000 people, is transforming its downtown to attract visitors. Mayor Tom O’Connor said the city is embracing its small-town feel.

“We’re a residential community growing like crazy,” O’Connor said. “People for years viewed Victoria as a traffic light. Now we’ve created a sense of purpose and place. … People will want to come to downtown.”

The city spent about $2 million to build a new city hall and library last year, and now it plans to refresh its downtown. It’s part of the city’s effort to develop the town into a waterfront destination. The city is encouraging development along Steiger Lake and partnering with the Three Rivers Park District to create a lakeshore public space and increase trails by the lake.

In the spring, the city will unveil a downtown bandstand and a sculpture on the lakeshore. Victoria artist Deb Zeller designed the sculpture, created in part to build the city’s brand as the “City of Lakes and Parks.”

Enki Brewing and developer Hartman Communities plan to turn the former HEI Inc. headquarters property on Stieger Lake Lane into a brewery square with a brewery, taproom and a retail destination.

Enki will move from its current location about two blocks away to the 43,000-square-foot building.

“We’ve added things that are reasons to come out for an afternoon or an evening of fun leisure recreation,” City Manager Laurie Hokkanen said.

Revamping Coney Island

About seven miles west of Victoria, Waconia has long been seen as a destination spot for tourists.

“In the past five years, it’s really exploded,” said Kellie Sites, Waconia Chamber of Commerce president.

The city boasts several breweries and wineries. J. Carver Distillery opened in June. Visitors can take a bus tour to visit the city’s wineries and take pictures of its barn quilts.

Waconia Mayor Jim Sanborn said improvements to Highway 5 will make it easier for visitors coming into the city, which has also added more parking and put in new street lamps.

The city is looking into adding outdoor patios to its downtown.

“There is some kind of activity going on in this community every weekend,” said Susan Arntz, Waconia city administrator. “If you’re bored in Waconia, it’s your own fault.”

Carver County is stepping in to revamp Waconia’s long-abandoned Coney Island, which once served as the practice ground for the University of Minnesota football team.

Tourists flocked to Waconia on trains starting in 1884 with the development of the island. They dubbed the city “Paradise of the Northwest.” Tourists spent their summers at the island’s hotels and cabins. When the railroad came to town in 1886, more tourists arrived to make Waconia their summer destination.

The Metropolitan Council approved a grant of about $1 million to Carver County to help with its purchase of the island, which will become a 30-acre park.

The council also plans on reimbursing the county up to $169,878 for demolition and debris removal costs on the island.

The County Board approved the agreement of sale for Coney Island at its board meeting on Tuesday. The county plans to incorporate the island into Lake Waconia Regional Park and open it to the public. At a Jan. 13 meeting, the county heard suggestions from the public, including opening up camping on the island and adding history kiosks for visitors.

“We think this is a pretty big deal,” said David Hemze, Carver County administrator. “We are very pleased it is ultimately going in public hands.”