by April Scheinoha
A new beginning may be on the way for downtown Thief River Falls. At its meeting Tuesday, Jan. 16, the Thief River Falls City Council heard a presentation about a master plan for a unified look in downtown Thief River Falls.
About six months ago, work began on the master plan with assistance from the University of Minnesota. The Thief River Falls Downtown Development Association, a committee of the Thief River Falls Chamber of Commerce, facilitated completion of the master plan.
A U of M design student met with downtown property owners. Community meetings were held to gather input as well.
Ashley Nerhus, Chamber executive director, and Ryan Walseth, chairperson of the Thief River Falls Downtown Development Association, presented the master plan to the council.
“It’s a great time to be in Thief River Falls as all of you know,” Walseth said.
City leaders hope to use the gathered information pertaining to public infrastructure for its 2019 street improvements project in the downtown area. Nerhus noted that the master plan will provide a pathway to a great downtown Thief River Falls.
To aid in its efforts, the U of M used five cities as precedents, Walseth said. Those communities included Northfield; Grand Forks, N.D.; Fargo, N.D.; Bend, Ore.; and Brussels, Belgium.
Seven design principles and recommendations were made as part of the process.
Those principles included:
• Connect with Nature
• Design with Scale
• Express Culture
• Foster Innovation
• Create Experiences
• Maintain and Troubleshoot
• Create Winning Teams
Connect with Nature
Connect with Nature centered on using flowers, planters, grass and nature-related items to make the downtown area more fun and welcoming, Nerhus said.
One suggestion has been to utilize the riverfront near Atlantic Avenue for a restaurant. A potential location is the city-owned building formerly occupied by HDR Engineering.
Schuett Companies LLC is planning to develop a portion of the former downtown campus of Sanford Medical Center. The company plans to develop the site into apartments.
Thief River Falls has also been encouraged to use the riverfront for walking/biking paths. Glen Kajewski from Bike Thief River Falls also suggested multi-use trails connecting the downtown area with the rest of Thief River Falls. He referred to designated bike lanes on downtown streets as well as designating and painting Greenwood Street for such purposes. Kajewski also suggested experimenting with pop-up biking/walking lanes on LaBree Avenue in 2019.
Design with Scale
Design with Scale focused on creating a pedestrian/bicycle-friendly downtown with efficient use of parking space. Walseth said diagonal parking was a hot topic. A conceptual picture of diagonal parking near the post office was shown.
Another suggestion was to create opportunities for businesses to share spaces within one building. Walseth noted that the Elks Club was listed as a suggestion.
Thief River Falls was also encouraged to reopen windows in the downtown area. Nerhus said reopening windows would create a more welcoming downtown, making the downtown area seem brighter.
The master plan suggested the city express its history and culture downtown. Nerhus referred to large and small possibilities like stamped concrete or designs on bike racks.
Other possibilities included encouraging artist spaces, displaying more artwork downtown and/or hosting art walks.
Laura Stengrim, executive director of the Thief River Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau, referred to the need for branding. She said the city, CVB, Chamber, businesses and nonprofit organizations could use the same logo and tagline to market Thief River Falls. Stengrim said Grand Rapids recently spearheaded such an effort. “I believe it will be well worth the effort for Thief River Falls,” she said.
Co-working common spaces were suggested as a way to foster innovation. Nerhus cited an example in Grand Forks, where individuals can rent space in an office building. She noted that a new business owner may not be able to afford a building right away. However, a co-working space would be location where the person could use a laptop computer and meet with clients.
Walseth noted a variety of economic development incentives, like a renaissance zone, would also be helpful.
The master plan also referred to the possibility of promoting Thief River Falls’ historical buildings. In particular, the promotion of a self-guided walking tour was suggested. Residents and visitors could participate in the tour. Plaques could be placed near all of the downtown buildings, listing the history of each particular building. Work has already begun on this particular project.
An existing lot could also be used for a town square and a place for the community to come together, Nerhus said.
The Maintain and Troubleshoot principle pertained to the need for signage. Walseth said residents know where they are going, but more signage for the hospital, library and underpass may assist visitors.
Create Winning Teams
Nerhus noted that the community has already started creating winning teams. She referred to the DDA’s efforts for the Downtown Cleanup Day. Nerhus also highlighted a partnership with the city of Thief River Falls in which a new city light pole was installed outside of the Carnegie Library. Speakers, benches and garbage cans can be easily attached to similar light poles, which could potentially be installed elsewhere downtown.
The city is already working with the DDA and Chamber. In 2019, the city may improve LaBree Avenue and other downtown streets. “This is the time to talk about how we’d like that to be a little different,” said Community Services Director Mark Borseth.
Another team could be created to help identify “low hanging fruit” and accomplish those projects, Nerhus said. The group was also encouraged to celebrate its success along the way.
In a related matter, the council held a first reading to amend an ordinance related to outdoor sidewalk commerce zones.
If the amendment passed, Central Business District (C-3) property owners would be able to obtain a permit to sell retail items on the sidewalk and/or offer outdoor dining there. Borseth noted that the city is required to leave five feet clear for Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. If the sidewalk measured beyond nine feet, the property owner may apply to receive a commerce zone permit for those activities.
Borseth added that downtown sidewalks may be wider and more pedestrian-friendly if improvements were made to LaBree Avenue and other downtown streets in 2019.
The ordinance amendment is expected to be considered at an upcoming council meeting.