What can ROCHESTER'S HISTORY teach us about downtown revitalization?
By Megan Malugani
Local antiques dealer and auctioneer John Kruesel is an encyclopedia of local lore. Kruesel is a fourth generation Rochesterite and has operated his business, John Kruesel General Merchandise and Auction Co., at 22 Third St. SW in downtown Rochester for 30 years. Kruesel is also a former president of the Olmsted County Historical Society. "I've taken on the role of being a steward and a historian," Kruesel says.
RM: What have been the highs and lows in the history of downtown Rochester?
JK: The heyday of downtown Rochester, when the sidewalks were always filled with people, was when we had our Dayton’s store [1954-1972, until it moved to Apache Mall]. When Dayton’s left, the downtown fell apart and hasn’t been the same since. The loss of Dayton’s was coupled with the growth of the skyways and subways, which suck people off the streets and sidewalks. Skyways and subways are key for people who come here for health care, but they shift traffic patterns and are depersonalizing.
RM: What were the hangouts in downtown Rochester in its heyday?
JK: All the youth in Rochester hung out at the Armory, where there were dances on the weekends. The ice cream parlors and movie houses were always packed. The 1960s were a blast. There were grocery stores, drug stores, bars, retailers, tailor shops, and photography studios downtown. The early ‘60s were something to lust for.
RM: Was there any seedier form of entertainment downtown?
JK: There was the Brown Derby, which changed to the Happy Warrior. There were also pornography stores and massage parlors. The city got a lot of those places shut down through income tax problems.
RM: After Dayton’s left, how did downtown change?
JK: The other businesses followed the larger business, to get out to places with easy, free parking. Downtown was devoid of any vibrancy. There were deteriorating buildings and empty storefronts.
RM: Is downtown moving in the right direction now?
JK: If employment base is the answer, then Rochester has continued to grow around our major employer. The clinic has played a major role in changing the face of Rochester. This is a positive thing as long as who and what we are as a community stays the same. Also, positive things have been going on since the city council funded a study a few years ago as to what is needed to add vibrancy, personality, color, and fabric to the street level of downtown ... what was found is that a vitalized downtown needs people interacting on the streets and vibrant, unique small businesses on the street.
RM: What ideas do you have for downtown revitalization?
JK: Can we create incentive packages for businesses to be downtown? Will taxes be different? Parking is a real issue. We need to realize that moving people by cars needs to be readdressed. This community is busting out at the seams. I hope eventually people will move around by mass transit and monorails. One of the points of the study was to put an ‘urban village’ of affordable housing downtown. We need to keep looking at these issues and find a way to do it.