MANKATO — Take an outsider’s perspective: Downtown Mankato, especially the bars and restaurants on Front Street, can be tricky to navigate.
Tom Frederick, an owner of Pub 500, remembers one confused couple from Wisconsin who visited Mankato last weekend. The couple was staying in a downtown hotel and was told to make their way downtown to find the bars and restaurants.
They missed Front Street entirely and ended up walking all the way down to Neighbor’s Italian Bistro along South Riverfront Drive, about a mile out of their way. Someone at Neighbor’s gave them a ride back, and the couple shared the story with Frederick the following evening.
And they aren’t the only ones having trouble finding downtown Mankato.
“Where is downtown Mankato?” rhetorically asked Eric Harriman, coordinator of the City Center Partnership. Cities tend to have a destination where they know they’ve arrived downtown, but Mankato doesn’t have an obvious answer, he said.
He believes Front Street is a natural downtown-in-waiting.
The partnership, a coalition of businesses and the city, is researching how to turn the Front Street corridor — from the police headquarters to the library — into the downtown of ages past.
It’s called the Front Street Connectivity Plan and focuses on how to make the street more vibrant and welcoming to pedestrians, although traffic changes, such as signs, also are possible.
The effort has just started, in the form of a task force that is creating a way forward: a plan for a plan.
The most obvious challenge is the same one faced by the Wisconsin couple. Front Street is interrupted by a mall, a civic center and a hotel. But the lack of a road here is also a blessing, Harriman said, because there’s no vehicle traffic to worry about.
Harriman and dozens of other city leaders got a glimpse of what Front Street could be during their 2011 trip to Charlottesville, Va., which has a nine-block downtown walking mall.
The problem in Mankato is that Front Street doesn’t have a unified feel.
Harriman isn’t talking about tearing anything down — the idea is that the business owners and institutions in the area have a common interest in getting more people downtown.
What happens, in other words, is up to the people who live here, the “stakeholders” in planning lingo.
“Signage is going to be huge,” Frederick said.
Another idea — shutting off traffic on the 500 and 600 blocks of Front Street (between Cherry and Liberty streets) — doesn’t have Frederick’s support.
He’s not totally opposed to short-term closures but said businesses have come to rely on the street. Frederick said that change would force customers to change their habits.
“And if habits change, you risk losing visibility,” an important factor for businesses such as Pub 500.
Harriman is aware the effort is, in some ways, a correction of ’70s efforts to get people downtown, in that case by erecting a mall over Front Street. So will this plan eventually be seen as a shortsighted reaction to inevitably changing market forces?
Harriman said this plan is different because the former Mankato Mall essentially sought to mimic and compete with the city’s “suburbs” — to make the downtown into parking lots and thoroughfares.
But downtowns across America lost that battle, and Harriman said this effort gets downtowns back to doing what they do well — attract people by being interesting, fun and safe.
“This creates a downtown for people,” Harriman said.