HJ/EDEnterprise Dispatch, Feb. 13, 2006

Vision for Dassel sees downtown as destination

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Dassel’s downtown has the potential to become a destination for the region, according to a discussion at a visioning session Tuesday. How to develop that potential, though, was questioned by a dozen business representatives at the meeting.

The “visioning” meeting grew out of discussion the Dassel Chamber of Commerce had about the possibility of getting new street lights for downtown, said City Administrator Myles McGrath.

“It’s (lighting project) not really going to change the business climate in downtown Dassel,” McGrath said.

As a result, McGrath organized a meeting, “Downtown and Highway Connectivity and Dassel’s Future,” for property owners to discuss ways to make and keep the city economically viable.

Those in attendance were Sandy Crayford of Latte Da Coffee Shop; Kristi and Jim Rorah of North Star Willy’s; Kelly Babekuhl of Realty Plus; Cary Linder, representing the Dassel Medical Center of the Hutchinson Medical Center, and Dassel Cokato School Board; Karyn Gibson, of Sprint’s public affairs; Bill Ward, administrator of Dassel Lakeside Community Home; Paul Haekenkamp of Paul’s Auto Works; Robert and Amy Wilde of Robert Wilde Studio. Amy Wilde also is a Meeker County Commissioner. Robert Wilde is a city council member.

The group agreed with each other that Dassel has many strengths to build upon. The most important was that Dassel has a walkable downtown. It is laid out similar to the rungs of a ladder between Highway 12 and Atlantic Ave, the two “Main Streets,” said Amy Wilde.

Amy Wilde also listed the city’s captive audiences as a strength. They are summer people, people who stay at their lake cabins during the summer, and senior citizens.

Linder agreed, adding another captive audience he called “duo-professionals.” They are relatively well-off couples, in which both have careers in big cities, but prefer to live in the country. The Dassel area’s lakes and green spaces are attractive to them, Linder said.

Most of the other small towns in Minnesota with the same potential as Dassel found a niche, Gibson said.

McGrath said Dassel’s niche could be a “turn of the century atmosphere” because of its train station museum, band shell, and “neat architecture.”

He could imagine people saying, “Let’s drive out to Dassel,” he said.

Both Babekuhl and Crayford pointed out that Dassel’s location as a halfway point between Willmar and the Twin Cities was an advantage. Dassel captures the drive through traffic from Highway 12, Crayford said.

Wal-Mart will be coming to Litchfield in the summer, so traffic going to Litchfield can be captured also, Amy Wilde said.

The municipal liquor store has attracted a significant amount of seasonal population, she added.

Downtown Dassel’s appearance to outsiders, though, gives the impression that 65 percent of the buildings are empty, although the majority are being used, McGrath said. The downtown needs to be economically viable, however, before business owners are willing to reinvest in storefronts, he said.

Babekuhl suggested that making the storefronts look “cohesive” is a first start.

The buildings that are used for storage or have opaqued windows will need more than matching flower pots to make Dassel a destination, Linder said.

Robert Wilde said some of the shabbier properties could be given away free to those willing to repair and renovate them.

The group also discussed the challenges the city is facing. Heavy traffic on Highway 12 makes it a barrier for pedestrians, for example, Linder said. Also, the city now has good core businesses, such as Hansen’s Our Own Hardware and Gary’s Family Foods, but who will take those business owners’ places when they retire? he asked.

“It’s very hard for a small business to survive in Dassel,” Crayford said.

Many Dassel residents don’t buy locally or at least shop around locally first, she said.

Also, some of the local business people don’t market their businesses very well, Amy Wilde said. She told a story she said illustrates the “Duh” factor. She had mentioned she bought dog food from a local feed mill, and a resident said, “I didn’t know they made dog food.”

Many successful businesses in small towns don’t rely only on off-the-street customers, she said.

In addition, some local business people view new businesses as threatening competition, she said.

McGrath said this has been proven false with car dealerships. When there is more than one car dealer in town, it attracts more customers for all the car dealers because customers like to “shop around” in one place, he said.

The next step will be to get a base map of the downtown showing who the property owners are. They will be targeted with letters about another meeting in early March, probably on a Tuesday, McGrath said.

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