ZUMBROTA, Minn. — There are plenty of things that can be difficult for small towns to support, especially in the age of commuter life and big-box stores. Beautiful old Main Streets can get hollowed out. It can be hard for grocery stores to survive when a cheaper chain supermarket is just down the highway. And one of the saddest relics of a bygone life can be the gorgeous old small-town theater, abandoned and lost to history.
In all of these ways, this Goodhue County town of 3,500 people a half-hour north of Rochester bucks the stereotypes of struggling small-town Main Streets. There's a thriving grocery store and a downtown strip where only one storefront is unoccupied. A new 57-unit apartment building is going up. There are loads of boutique businesses — Phenomenal Woman Consignment Shop, Wild Ginger Boutique, Luya Shoes and Other Fine Things — most of which are women-owned. The 152-year-old Zumbrota Covered Bridge is the state's only remaining original functional covered bridge, spanning the Zumbro River in the 85-acre Covered Bridge Park.
"You can do everything right here in Zumbrota," Mayor Todd Hammel said.
Best of all, though, is the town's historic, renovated State Theatre, which has survived both the longstanding struggles of small-town theaters as well as the existential event that the COVID-19 pandemic has been for live performance venues. In December, the 270-seat theater celebrated 100 years.
Roxanne Bartsh bought a historic downtown building with her husband, David Zimmerman, two decades ago and set about restoring it. Part of their passion became helping to keep Zumbrota's downtown a healthy environment for businesses.
"We're very lucky for a small town — we have a really thriving downtown," she said. "It's a combination of some really entrepreneurial businesspeople who saw the importance of keeping our small town vibrant. We've turned it into a destination community. It used to be in small towns you had three hardware stores, a dry goods store, all sorts of stores — then big-box stores took over, and those all dried up, lots of empty storefronts. But we created retail space with lots of unique items. Our downtown is like the anti-big-box store."
A little more than a decade ago, the previous owners of the single-screen movie theater were looking to sell. The Zumbrota Area Arts Council saw an opportunity. The organization raised more than $300,000 and purchased the building outright. They replaced the roof and restored parts of the building. They hosted concerts and dance performances. A community theater company put on plays, and the local 4H puts on children's theater events. The theater hosted 60-some events a year, including family movies on Friday nights in winter. It felt like the entire community would show up for movie nights that would feature titles ranging from "To Kill a Mockingbird" to "Mary Poppins" to "The Greatest Showman."
"It brings all generations together," said Bartsh, who chairs the arts council's theater management committee. "It's not the Orpheum, OK? But there's charm to the theater. The patrons like it, but we hear it equally from the performers who come."
The theater recently put in new bathrooms and a concession area, and town leaders are in the midst of a capital campaign to raise money to restore the seats, remodel the lobby, restore an Art Deco mural and upgrade all the electrical. They have raised some $220,000 to date, with more than half the money coming from private donations.
"That just speaks to how much this theater means to our community," Bartsh said. "People don't want to see it die. It makes me proud to call Zumbrota home."