By Kristen Miller
COKATO, MN - The Cokato Economic Development Authority recently participated in a city evaluation project with the Arlington EDA and found areas to improve on, as well as strengths to be proud of.
The Cokato EDA decided to participate in the First Impressions program for community assessment and improvement to get comments about the city from an outside perspective.
Participant Dennis Schultz from the Arlington EDA, Cokato’s “sister city” for the “First Impressions” project, reported their findings to the Cokato EDA during its Monday meeting.
‘First Impressions’ findings
In August, six volunteers from Cokato traveled to Arlington, located about 45 miles south of Cokato in Sibley County, to do their “First Impressions” report. They were Holly Hansen, Josiah Newsom, Linda Metcalf, Mike Ackerman, Jill Plowman, and Peter Bortnem.
The participants acted as “secret shoppers” for a day, making observations, following procedures, and reporting on guidelines developed for the program.
In October, five volunteers from Arlington visited Cokato, making the same observations and reporting on their findings.
Before the town visit, the participants answered questions on what they already knew about the town and what they expected to see.
They were also asked to rate and comment on how easy it was to get information about the respective city, as well as the information on the city’s web site.
Comments were made about the friendly and informative city staff, but that the web site could use more color and pictures.
For a first impression, the participants were asked to take a five-minute drive through town. As they exited the community, participants pulled over to report what their first impressions were of the city.
Some of the comments made by the Arlington team visiting Cokato were: “Streets and roads are in very good shape overall. Downtown has new sidewalks and street resurfacing in the last couple of years,” “Was surprised at the number of vacant buildings around town, particularly in the downtown area,” and “Downtown was very clean and maintained. Nice little pocket parks and nice landscaping in front of the bank.”
The next questions were observations made on the town’s entrances. For the most part, comments were positive including comments made on a “nice wide street,” and “good signage.”
One participant commented on the potential of the old creamery building at the corner of Highway 12 and Wright County Road 3.
“It could be developed into a Chamber location or a tourism information source. It could be a WOW point of interest that would make an impression.”
Other areas evaluated within the community included housing and residential areas, education, health care services, social services, civic organizations, and emergency services.
Observations were made about the local economy including downtown, retail, and local industries.
Comments made regarding Cokato’s downtown area included, “Plywood in store windows is not a good sign for downtown,” “There were some vacant buildings that were in very good condition that needed only minimal upgrading to make openable,” and “Good sidewalks and streets that should be conducive to businesses.”
One participant commented on the two banks in town, and that Arlington would welcome another bank.
Another complimented the “little retail mall” saying it had a “good mix of businesses.”
In regards to comments made of the town’s industrial park there seemed to be a consensus that it appeared to be “first class.” Also that the lots appeared to be “shovel-ready and waiting for the next business.”
One comment was made that “all the occupants of the industrial park took very good care of their facilities,” and “took pride in their appearance to the outside community.”
To summarize, participants were asked what the five biggest obstacles/challenges were facing the Cokato community. These were their answers:
• Removing the urge that the highway is the best place to be.
• Slowing down the retail leakage to points east and west.
• Planned growth and where to focus this growth.
• The stigma of a vacant downtown.
• Improving after-hours options.
The next step
Schultz presented the findings to the Cokato EDA with council members Carl Harju, Butch Amundsen, and Mayor Bruce Johnson present.
Since it was a relatively newly- formed EDA, Dean Perry asked Schultz for any recommendations and priorities that the EDA should focus on.
Schultz recommended marketing the town in different area publications if available, getting information on buildable commercial lots to better answer questions when they arise, and getting a downtown “anchor” for other businesses to build off of.
“What I hope to see come out of this are discussions either formal or informal and some actions,” Murphy said.
The EDA will plan on presenting the information to the local Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club and potentially, down the road, holding a town meeting for further discussion.
“[As a community], you need to look at yourself from other people’s perspectives. That’s what this program did,” Murphy said.
“Identify those things and start talking about them,” he added.
Plowman, who was part of the team visiting Arlington, was impressed with the city’s use of the downtown area.
“They had a vibrant downtown, full of useful retail services including a meat market, bakery, consignment shops, shoes, appliances, hardware store, banks and restaurants,” Plowman said.
For Plowman, First Impressions “is a useful tool to have to examine your own city by looking at others.”
The full report can be found on the city’s web site, www.cokato.mn.us.
How it all began
The idea came after Wayne Murphy, Cokato EDA member, read the book “Boomtown USA” by Jack Schultz.
In it, the author explains how every town leaves a first impression on its visitors.
Murphy knew Cokato needed to take a look at itself, but through someone else’s eyes.
After doing some research, Murphy found a program called “First Impressions” on the University of Wisconsin web site and downloaded it.
When he brought the idea to the EDA, the members were interested in going forth with the project to see where it would take them.
In order for there to be an apple-to-apple comparison, Murphy looked for a town of similar size to Cokato within a reasonable distance as a sister city.
Having lived in Arlington previously, Murphy considered it a good comparison.