Smart Moves in Small Towns
Creative reuse strategies help put local communities on the map.
As the economy revs up, many
small towns fear being left in the dust of retreating businesses and
citizens looking for opportunities in larger cities. They also face
dual demons as big-box retailers abandon their cavernous stores and
nearby urban malls and lifestyle centers lure customers from downtown
streets. This march to more-populous areas costs many small communities
thousands of dollars in infrastructure fees, land development, and
It's a conundrum because
many small towns offer quality of life aspects that people enjoy: less
congestion, a slower pace, and a sense of community. But all is not
lost, says Anthony Filipovitch, professor and chair of urban and
regional studies at Minnesota State University in Mankato. Small towns
can repair the damage big-box vacancies cause and assist struggling
central business districts by creatively reusing empty space. ?Instead
of trying to find another big-box tenant, communities need to look at
creating an internal village of mixed-use spaces,? he says. For
example, bringing a core of daily workers into a struggling downtown
creates the synergy necessary for revitalization: Service and retail
businesses typically follow a strong customer base.
the decision to revitalize space that has outlived its current use
encompasses many economic, social, and feasibility factors. Two
Minnesota communities discovered that steady vision and an effective
combination of properties can create the economic payoffs that make
adaptive reuse a viable alternative in small towns.
Tourists Discover a Taste for Spam
Vacant K-Marts loom ominously in many small towns since the retailer
shuttered more than 600 stores during its bankruptcy restructuring.
These medium-size big boxes are among the most challenging to
reconfigure, retail experts say, because they are difficult to break up
into the smaller spaces that reuse retailers require. However, in
Austin, a once-dark 77,000-square-foot K-Mart was reborn as Hormel
Foods Corp.'s 53,000-sf headquarters and the 24,000-sf Spam Museum, the
town's new cultural icon visited by more than 200,000 tourists since
opening in September 2001.
long-time corporate and manufacturing pillar of Austin, Hormel was not
deterred by the project's many challenges. The company chose to
purchase and reuse the majority of the empty big box rather than build
new for four reasons: The site was close to Hormel's existing corporate
office complex, offered easy access directly off Interstate 90, and
provided a large parking area for both employees and visitors; and
reuse would save construction time, says Shawn Radford, manager of the
Spam Museum and archives.
revitalization required completely gutting the building and totally
renovating both the property's interior and exterior. The renovation
challenge was twofold: create a sophisticated, corporate image for the
project's office portion and a playful, informative image for the
Faced with a virtually
windowless shell, the team first brought natural light into the
building by cutting several window openings in the concrete block
construction and adding skylights to the roof at key internal
locations. They also included a thermal wall system and interior
insulation and encased the entire facility in an exterior brick veneer.
The construction of an 18-inch raised-access floor throughout allowed
the flexibility to adapt the reconfigured space for plug-and-play
K-Mart's two-story tire service center created an ideal museum
entrance, and the design team incorporated clerestory glass, giving
Hormel the grand statement it wanted. Lastly, the company commissioned
a sculpture for the museum entrance.
resulting corporate complex houses executive offices, open office
areas, conference rooms, and an employee fitness center. The attached
interpretative museum includes exhibit space, a store, an auditorium,
and a diner/coffee shop. Hormel wanted to ensure that the exterior
remodeling was consistent with the look of the company's other
corporate office facilities and kept a consistent design flow between
the office space and museum, Radford says. Reminiscent of the grand old
farmers' market buildings found throughout rural United States and
Canada, the design ties Hormel to southern Minnesota's agricultural
economy. In addition to the red-brick façade, the exterior features a
blue metal roof and blue awnings. Visible from the street, the famous
Spam logo sits on bright blue and yellow tile, highlighting the
The adaptive reuse
not only respects Hormel's image and commitment to the community, but
it also has created an economic payoff for the surrounding area.
?Before the renovation the building was a tremendous eyesore. Now we
have a unique, beautiful building that is getting national and
international recognition as one of the top tourist destinations in
Minnesota,? says Holly Drennan, executive director of the Austin
Convention and Visitors Bureau. ?It draws people off of the highway who
otherwise would not have stopped and spent dollars here.? She estimates
the Spam Museum has generated more than $15 million in tourism for the
community ? a 53 percent increase in just three years.
the Spam museum has given the citizens of Austin something to claim as
their own, something to set our community apart from others,? she says.
Remaking Mankato's Downtown
Located in the heart of downtown Mankato, the Intergovernmental Center
represents a very unusual revitalization: It's an adaptive reuse of an
1976, a Los Angeles developer brought urban renewal to this southern
Minnesota town of 55,000 people when he spanned a roof over two blocks
of the downtown's main retail street to create a climate-controlled
pedestrian mall that contained more than 60 retail stores and two major
anchors in its heyday.
But the project's
success was short-lived. Plagued by parking issues, retail expansion
outside of the CBD, and renewal opponents, the shopping mall dwindled
to a handful of shops and offices. Eventually, due to a delinquent
developer and the retail exodus, the majority of the shopping mall's
common area and several attached buildings became the city's
Across the street, city
officials faced another dilemma. By the early 1990s, the municipality
quickly was outgrowing its three-story, turn-of-the-century building.
The costs to expand and bring the structurally decaying facility up to
code were unrealistic. Confronted with this and the shopping mall's
growing common area maintenance and tax bills, the city looked for a
way to fix both problems.
?We wanted a
civic presence in the city's core rather than liquidating the property
for private use or development,? says Pat Hentges, Mankato's city
manager. The city sought proposals on how to revitalize the nearly
empty mall and reconfigure the downtown's core block to house city hall
and local school administration offices.
Architects' design and construction management plan took into account
the entire downtown setting. Their proposal included removing a portion
of the shopping mall's roof, demolishing the attached buildings,
renovating the mall's original department store, and integrating new
construction. It also included a pedestrian plaza and parking.
about $75 per square foot for both the new and rehabbed construction,
the project cost approximately $4.4 million, which the city financed
through charter bonds, cash reserves, and lease revenues. The city
offices taking space in the center were given a 10-year cost for
Rehabilitation efforts focused on
integrating the new construction into existing structures. By
incorporating historical design and construction materials with modern
materials and detailing, the team successfully coupled the renovated
portion of the mall's common area and the Intergovernmental Center with
their 19th-century neighbors. The use of exterior brick and locally
quarried Kasota stone, prevalent in much of the city's downtown
architecture, brought together the various generations of construction.
The addition and renovation continues the urban experience with
pedestrian walkways and green space.
took a very complex series of structures and managed to tie them
together into a packaged floor plan that flows very nicely. You would
have a hard time believing that there was once a series of multiple
buildings,? Hentges says.
68,929-sf Intergovernmental Center occupies the block's north end. The
Mankato Area Public Schools leases 6,700 sf on the first floor, which
also contains conference rooms and the mayor's and city council's
offices, as well as public facilities. The city occupies the 15,000-sf
second floor with offices for the city manager, public information,
public works, engineering, city attorney, housing, planning, economic
development, information systems, finance, and human resources. The
adjacent pedestrian plaza also faces the city's civic center, which
hosts cultural events such as touring shows and music groups, as well
Taking the lead role in
this revitalization has served the city well and has encouraged other
redevelopment in the downtown area. The adjacent mall is fully leased;
the other original four-story anchor store is undergoing
reconstruction; a nine-story, full-service hotel is slated to break
ground within the year; and private dollars are being invested in new
construction on adjacent blocks. ?[The city's] investment set off a
chain of other reinvestments where businesses can now market to these
[workers],? Filipovitch says. In all,
Mankato's economic payoff from the adaptive reuse was threefold,
Hentges says. ?First, it helped create a core of employees ? both city
and school. Second, it improved the value of other major complexes such
as the Midwest Wireless Civic Center with the plaza. And third, it has
provided a level of confidence to the private sector that they can
invest in businesses because the city of Mankato invested in downtown,?