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by Joni Astrup
Elk River Council Member Paul Motin has come out strongly against a long-range plan for downtown.
He cast the lone ‘no’ vote when the Elk River Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) approved the plan Nov. 5. He serves on both the council and the HRA.
“I see where you’re coming from,” Motin told his fellow HRA members before the vote. “I hate to say it, I just completely disagree … I just don’t think it’s a viable plan.”
He believes the designated downtown area is too small, even with a recent addition of property north of the railroad tracks along Jackson Avenue and Railroad Drive. He thinks more area to the west of downtown needs to be included.
Historic river towns like Red Wing, Stillwater and Winona have miles of riverfront and many historic buildings, he noted.
He also questioned whether it would be cost prohibitive to save every building in downtown Elk River.
“I like the idea of the historic feel to the downtown,” Motin said. “I don’t say bulldoze anything there, but I also don’t say that we have to necessarily maintain the buildings that are there since the late 1800s if they are not viable to be kept without an extreme amount of cost.”
He said the plan suggests that the area west of the Granite Shores building is off limits to redevelopment; Motin said that at one time some of that area was discussed as a possible second phase of downtown redevelopment.
Now the focus is on renovation of the old buildings, he said.
He said that approach could cause a lot of problems, noting that there isn’t enough “mass” of businesses in downtown Elk River, particularly if a state plan for Highway 10 eventually goes through that would limit access to downtown to two points.
“You’ve got to have something that’s really going to be a big draw, and a small area like that is going to be an issue,” Motin said of the old downtown.
Motin is the only one of the five HRA members who was not a member of the 17-member task force that came up with the new downtown plan, called the Mississippi Connections Redevelopment Framework. The plan is billed as a long-range vision for the 400-acre core of Elk River. It goes to the Elk River City Council for consideration on Monday, Nov. 19.
HRA Chair Stewart Wilson said the task force didn’t view Elk River as competing with Stillwater and Red Wing when it referred to downtown as a destination, but as a destination for people living in Elk River.
Wilson said he understands the attraction of having a bigger mass, and the potential for larger-scale development, but he said that wasn’t really what the task force had in mind.
Downtown is viewed as an area where people can do business, relax, dine and enjoy themselves, Wilson said, and the new plan helps accentuate that.
He, too, would like to capitalize more on the Mississippi River and expand more development along the river, “but I tend to think that would probably turn the town inside out trying to do that sort of thing.” Doing that on a smaller scale makes a lot of sense, he said.
Wilson believes if the changes proposed to Highway 10 ever happen, it will make it much easier for residents to get into downtown.
As for not encroaching into neighborhoods near downtown, Wilson said those neighborhoods have a lot of vitality and integrity and are worth preserving. They also help support downtown businesses, he said.
“Preserving them (the residential neighborhoods in the greater downtown area) and allowing them to stay in a single-family state is a critical component of the downtown plan,” Wilson said.
HRA Member Larry Toth said some homes near downtown date to the 1800s and early 1900s.
While they may not be on the National Register of Historic Places, to Elk River they are historic, Toth said.
“A town without a history becomes just a town. We’re making some steps here that will ensure those things will be maintained,” Toth added.
HRA Member Jean Lieser questioned if the plan takes a hands-off approach to buildings from Granite Shores west to the Cinema Professional Building.
“I never felt we had that in this plan,” Lieser said.
Elk River Planning Manager Jeremy Barnhart said it’s not a strict hands off, but the plan talks about preserving downtown’s Bluff Block, Brick Block and the area along south Main Street.
“This plans talks about keeping those the way they are,” Barnhart told the HRA.