by David Hill
Although there are several successful businesses in the downtown business district of Thief River Falls, empty lots and buildings have given visitors just the opposite impression. Thursday night, residents and business leaders gathered at the Carnegie Library to begin a process that will hopefully revitalize the downtown area and change opinions.
About 35 people attended the event, providing hope that efforts to revitalize the downtown could be possible.
Ryan Walseth, chairman of the Thief River Falls Downtown Development Association, said this was what they have been working for. He was very happy, and that the turnout was better than he had hoped for.
The Downtown Development Association is a committee of the Thief River Falls Chamber of Commerce, working to preserve and rejuvenate downtown Thief River Falls as a vibrant destination. It is composed of several business owners and community volunteers.
The association has been meeting regularly. Since its inception, it has implemented a number of efforts that led to additional downtown events and to sprucing up the downtown area. Thursday’s meeting was the first step, however, toward what many hope will be physical improvements to the downtown area.
Through a grant from the Regional Sustainable Development Partnership of the University of Minnesota Extension, and the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, the effort is being facilitated by representatives Joe Polacek, a master’s student with the Humphrey School for Public Affairs, and Virajita Singh, a professor and a research administrator with the College of Design and Sustainable Building Research. Polacek and Singh led citizens and business leaders through the first phase.
Most would consider Thief River Falls a thriving community and on the cusp of greater things. Just recently, Digi-Key announced plans that call for a $200 million to $300 million expansion and up to 1,000 new employees over a 10-year period; Arctic Cat was purchased and stablized by Textron; new apartments are being built and opening up; workforce housing issues are being addressed; public school facilities have been improved; the community has a new hospital and clinic; and, new infrastructure including a new walkway, underpass and bridge have been added. The only conclusion one could draw is that Thief River Falls has a lot going for it, but many believe the downtown business district has been left behind.
What’s working and not working? Still in the research phase, participants at the meeting Thursday were divided into groups and led through a process that encouraged them to identify assets, liabilities and opportunities.
Participants learned that sometimes, the difference between an asset and a liability can be blurred by the opportunities they present.
Common assets – or things that work well, favorite places to be, and what they like – that were identified by groups included thriving businesses and public offices such as the public library, Carnegie Library, the Riverwalk, and post office.
Common liabilities – or things that don’t work well and that they don’t like – that were identified by the groups included empty stores, dilapidated stores or stores in need of repair, poor lighting, and impediments to traffic, such as structures, the river and trains.
Aspirations or opportunities – landscaped spaces, what they would like to see, activities that should exist, and hopes and dreams for the downtown – that were identified by the groups included efforts that make better use of the river, businesses that cater to the younger generation, new apartment complexes and improved access to parks, such as to Elks Park where the fountain is located.
Few people left immediately after the event, as those attending the event were excited about the opportunities.
The next phase of the process begins with a meeting on July 19.
Walseth said it was wonderful to hear from individuals with a different perspective, and he hopes even more people become involved in the process.