The new year is bringing no shortage of ideas for luring business, shoppers and higher-paying jobs to Forest Lake.
Mayor Stev Stegner and City Council members Ben Winnick and Richard Weber each weighed in on the subject recently while presenting their “vision” statements to the council at its first meeting of 2015.
Among the ideas discussed: developing a technology park, adding a college campus and, perhaps, refurbishing downtown to look and feel similar to Stillwater’s historic riverfront district.
Stegner, in outlining his vision, said he wants give his children, “who were born and raised in Forest Lake,” the same opportunities he had.
“That means go to school, go away to college, come back and raise a family in Forest Lake,” he said. “Unfortunately there’s not enough high-paying jobs in Forest Lake to support folks with a college education. There certainly are some. We need to expand that.”
Establishing more jobs in Forest Lake could potentially benefit those living in or near the city, Stegner said, by enabling them to spend more time with their families, volunteer in the community and support local businesses.
“We can actually spiral our community into success,” Stegner said.
While some of the vision for the future is highly ambitious and would take time to achieve, the council nevertheless hopes to hold strategic planning sessions to specify steps to take and establish deadlines.
Stegner said in a recent interview that he hopes the city can develop a college campus to serve some 500 students, which in turn could help attract high-tech medical and manufacturing companies with higher-paying jobs.
Forest Lake also needs to encourage development of businesses that will help fill the “retail gaps” identified in a market area profile compiled in 2012 by the University of Minnesota as part of a business expansion and retention program, Stegner said.
Retail needs mentioned included more specialty food restaurants, gift and souvenir stores, repair shops, limited-service dining locations and gasoline stations.
Even now, however, Forest Lake presents opportunity for development, Stegner said.
He cited the example of one company that was interested in moving to the city because it will be forced to move from its current location due to light rail construction.
Stegner said that a developer also is considering a downtown project that could involve acquiring a handful of older buildings and possibly razing them to build something larger in their place. Among the downtown properties available for sale or possible redevelopment is the old city hall, located north of Broadway Avenue at Lake Street and Second Avenue.
One way to create more of a downtown business district, Winnick said, would be to separate the single north- and southbound lanes of Hwy. 61 at the old city hall site.
“The single lane of Hwy. 61 going through town is a significant bottleneck for traffic and a bottleneck for future growth,” Winnick said.
He suggested moving those lanes “a couple blocks away from each other so that we would be able to develop kind of a commercial district moving north and south along Forest Lake.”
A long-term vision, Winnick said, is a technology park.
“What we are lacking in Forest Lake are the higher-tech, the white-collar jobs,” he said. “Most people who are in our community end up driving a fairly long distance for those types of jobs. I believe we have good potential to bring those businesses here. … If we can get some of those businesses, it will help our tax base as well.”
Weber said that as he campaigned last summer and fall for a seat on the council, residents expressed more interest in developing downtown and making it more vibrant than in any other issue. He told the council that he would like to see more specialty shops downtown and more activities at nearby Lake Side park to help attract residents and people living outside the city.
“What we’re talking about was having more of a Stillwater-type feel … where you can walk up and down and literally spend the day downtown,” he said.
“We don’t have much with regard to walking and shopping. If we get the right businesses in there, I think we could revitalize it in the next two, three or four years.”
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.