"Rah Rah Rochester" is the city's official cheer, but "Up With Downtown" could be the Rochester Downtown Alliance's unofficial motto. The RDA was formed two years ago to promote the city's oft-maligned downtown ("There's nothing to do! There's no parking!"). The RDA's hefty to-do list includes enticing Rochesterites and visitors into the city's core for special events, managing the development of the Peace Plaza pedestrian mall, recruiting new businesses, and developing affordable housing a la an 'urban village.'
The alliance, which was part of a package of recommendations for revitalizing downtown made by Colorado consultant Brad Segal and approved by the city council in 2004, is funded by a special tax abatement on downtown businesses and employs an executive director, Sandy Keith, and a community engagement director, Heidi Mestad. The RDA is operated with an annual budget of roughly $250,000.
“RDA is doing a lot, and we’re at the cusp of when we’re starting to see results,” Mestad says. “There are so many great organizations, businesses, and people in Rochester, and we all have the same interest in making downtown unique, active, and fun. It’s exciting to be a part of it.”
Here’s an update from Mestad on the RDA’s efforts to breathe life into downtown.
A major goal of the RDA is to bring life to the streets of Rochester, which is not easy in a three-tiered city with highly-traveled subways and skyways, which are convenient but tend to discourage interaction. “People want more lively things to do downtown, and that means more street action,” Mestad says. To that end, the RDA tripled its budget (to $30,000)—and its attendance (to more than 2,500 weekly for the nighttime entertainment)—for this summer’s “Thursdays on First,” the weekly outdoor festival located on First Avenue between Second and Third Streets.
The festival, which concluded at the end of August, included arts and crafts stands (where shoppers could buy everything from pet neckwarmers to “Scrub Your Butt” soap), restaurant vendors (serving everything from Pad Thai to sloppy joes), musical entertainment (including reggae, salsa, and Beach Boys-style music from Minneapolis and Chicago), and an urban beer garden. Mestad has big plans for future summers of Thursdays on First, including transforming it into a “world market” featuring authentic and diverse crafts and food.
A key to making downtown—and downtown events like Thursdays on First—accessible to Rochesterites is improved signage and a better understanding of parking, Mestad says. The RDA is working on improving “wayfinding” in downtown. “We’re trying to make downtown more user-friendly,” she says. People often complain about downtown parking, but there is “oodles of free ramp parking” after hours, she says. The RDA’s new website, www.downtownrochestermn.com, can help downtown visitors decide where to park before they even go downtown.
Plans have been in the works for several years for closing traffic on one block of First Street Southwest, between the Shops at University Square (formerly the Galleria) and Gonda Building, and expanding the Peace Plaza pedestrian mall so that it can host outdoor carnivals, concerts and markets. RDA is heavily involved in the project, which is expected to be complete in spring of 2008. Mestad envisions that Peace Plaza will be a community gathering place with a “holistic” feel that could serve as the kickoff point for charity races and walks, or could host outdoor movies projected on the side of a building near the plaza.
Other ideas for the expanded plaza are an outdoor skating rink and hot chocolate vendors in the winter and a year-round nightly automated laser light show. An adult martini bar or lounge could be a good addition to the plaza area, Mestad notes, although plans haven’t been solidified. “It will be wonderful to have a place downtown where people can gather. We’re a social species and want to be around other people,” Mestad says.
Several new businesses (including those profiled on pages 36-40) have moved downtown recently, and the RDA is involved in trying to recruit more. “We’re trying to bring businesses down here and we’re examining what initiatives would make it easier for developers,” Mestad says. The RDA also tries to support and promote existing businesses—the RDA’s website now provides a “What’s Happening Tonight” section and profiles of downtown businesses. Mestad welcomes suggestions and critiques from businesses, and anyone else with a stake in making downtown more vibrant.
Developing a residential ‘urban village’ downtown is another challenge of the RDA’s. The average age of downtown residents is now 65, Mestad says, but that will probably change when the University of Minnesota Rochester campus opens at the former Galleria, prompting the need for more downtown student housing. “Bringing housing down here is a huge priority,” Mestad says.
Rochesterites who haven’t been downtown for awhile but say ‘there’s nothing to do’ can make a difference by coming out for festivals and events. Developers want to see action downtown before they commit to projects, Mestad says. “The saying is ‘if you build it, they will come,’ but I’m saying, ‘if you come, they will build more.’”
ACCORDING TO THE ROCHESTER DOWNTOWN ALLIANCE, downtown Rochester is an approximately 50-block area, roughly bounded by Civic Center Drive to the north, the Zumbro River to the east, Soldiers Field Memorial Park to the south, and Fourth Avenue SW to the west.
MAJOR DOWNTOWN PROJECTS CURRENTLY UNDERWAY:
■ Peace Plaza expansion
■ University of Minnesota Rochester (UMR) campus, housed in the upper section of what was formerly the Galleria
■ Minnesota BioBusiness Center
THE LOWDOWN ON DOWNTOWN:
■ There are 31 independent restaurants.
■ Including the Shops at University Square (formerly the Galleria), First Street, and the Kahler merchants, there are more than 90 independent restaurants, boutiques, and stores.
■ Eighty percent of all the performing arts organizations and performance sites are located downtown.
For more info on the Rochester Downtown Alliance, check out www.downtownrochestermn.com.