Tertiary markets

Smart Moves in Small Towns

Creative reuse strategies help put local communities on the map.

As the economy revs up, many small towns fear being left in the dust of retreating businesses and citizens looking for opportunities in larger cities. They also face dual demons as big-box retailers abandon their cavernous stores and nearby urban malls and lifestyle centers lure customers from downtown streets. This march to more-populous areas costs many small communities thousands of dollars in infrastructure fees, land development, and foregone taxes.

It's a conundrum because many small towns offer quality of life aspects that people enjoy: less congestion, a slower pace, and a sense of community. But all is not lost, says Anthony Filipovitch, professor and chair of urban and regional studies at Minnesota State University in Mankato. Small towns can repair the damage big-box vacancies cause and assist struggling central business districts by creatively reusing empty space. ?Instead of trying to find another big-box tenant, communities need to look at creating an internal village of mixed-use spaces,? he says. For example, bringing a core of daily workers into a struggling downtown creates the synergy necessary for revitalization: Service and retail businesses typically follow a strong customer base.

Making the decision to revitalize space that has outlived its current use encompasses many economic, social, and feasibility factors. Two Minnesota communities discovered that steady vision and an effective combination of properties can create the economic payoffs that make adaptive reuse a viable alternative in small towns.

Tourists Discover a Taste for Spam
Vacant K-Marts loom ominously in many small towns since the retailer shuttered more than 600 stores during its bankruptcy restructuring. These medium-size big boxes are among the most challenging to reconfigure, retail experts say, because they are difficult to break up into the smaller spaces that reuse retailers require. However, in Austin, a once-dark 77,000-square-foot K-Mart was reborn as Hormel Foods Corp.'s 53,000-sf headquarters and the 24,000-sf Spam Museum, the town's new cultural icon visited by more than 200,000 tourists since opening in September 2001.

A long-time corporate and manufacturing pillar of Austin, Hormel was not deterred by the project's many challenges. The company chose to purchase and reuse the majority of the empty big box rather than build new for four reasons: The site was close to Hormel's existing corporate office complex, offered easy access directly off Interstate 90, and provided a large parking area for both employees and visitors; and reuse would save construction time, says Shawn Radford, manager of the Spam Museum and archives.

The revitalization required completely gutting the building and totally renovating both the property's interior and exterior. The renovation challenge was twofold: create a sophisticated, corporate image for the project's office portion and a playful, informative image for the museum.

Faced with a virtually windowless shell, the team first brought natural light into the building by cutting several window openings in the concrete block construction and adding skylights to the roof at key internal locations. They also included a thermal wall system and interior insulation and encased the entire facility in an exterior brick veneer. The construction of an 18-inch raised-access floor throughout allowed the flexibility to adapt the reconfigured space for plug-and-play workstation technology.

The former K-Mart's two-story tire service center created an ideal museum entrance, and the design team incorporated clerestory glass, giving Hormel the grand statement it wanted. Lastly, the company commissioned a sculpture for the museum entrance.

The resulting corporate complex houses executive offices, open office areas, conference rooms, and an employee fitness center. The attached interpretative museum includes exhibit space, a store, an auditorium, and a diner/coffee shop. Hormel wanted to ensure that the exterior remodeling was consistent with the look of the company's other corporate office facilities and kept a consistent design flow between the office space and museum, Radford says. Reminiscent of the grand old farmers' market buildings found throughout rural United States and Canada, the design ties Hormel to southern Minnesota's agricultural economy. In addition to the red-brick façade, the exterior features a blue metal roof and blue awnings. Visible from the street, the famous Spam logo sits on bright blue and yellow tile, highlighting the museum's location.

The adaptive reuse not only respects Hormel's image and commitment to the community, but it also has created an economic payoff for the surrounding area. ?Before the renovation the building was a tremendous eyesore. Now we have a unique, beautiful building that is getting national and international recognition as one of the top tourist destinations in Minnesota,? says Holly Drennan, executive director of the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. ?It draws people off of the highway who otherwise would not have stopped and spent dollars here.? She estimates the Spam Museum has generated more than $15 million in tourism for the community ? a 53 percent increase in just three years.

?Furthermore, the Spam museum has given the citizens of Austin something to claim as their own, something to set our community apart from others,? she says.

Remaking Mankato's Downtown
Located in the heart of downtown Mankato, the Intergovernmental Center represents a very unusual revitalization: It's an adaptive reuse of an adaptive reuse.

In 1976, a Los Angeles developer brought urban renewal to this southern Minnesota town of 55,000 people when he spanned a roof over two blocks of the downtown's main retail street to create a climate-controlled pedestrian mall that contained more than 60 retail stores and two major anchors in its heyday.

But the project's success was short-lived. Plagued by parking issues, retail expansion outside of the CBD, and renewal opponents, the shopping mall dwindled to a handful of shops and offices. Eventually, due to a delinquent developer and the retail exodus, the majority of the shopping mall's common area and several attached buildings became the city's responsibility.

Across the street, city officials faced another dilemma. By the early 1990s, the municipality quickly was outgrowing its three-story, turn-of-the-century building. The costs to expand and bring the structurally decaying facility up to code were unrealistic. Confronted with this and the shopping mall's growing common area maintenance and tax bills, the city looked for a way to fix both problems.

?We wanted a civic presence in the city's core rather than liquidating the property for private use or development,? says Pat Hentges, Mankato's city manager. The city sought proposals on how to revitalize the nearly empty mall and reconfigure the downtown's core block to house city hall and local school administration offices.

Paulsen Architects' design and construction management plan took into account the entire downtown setting. Their proposal included removing a portion of the shopping mall's roof, demolishing the attached buildings, renovating the mall's original department store, and integrating new construction. It also included a pedestrian plaza and parking.

Averaging about $75 per square foot for both the new and rehabbed construction, the project cost approximately $4.4 million, which the city financed through charter bonds, cash reserves, and lease revenues. The city offices taking space in the center were given a 10-year cost for leasing.

Rehabilitation efforts focused on integrating the new construction into existing structures. By incorporating historical design and construction materials with modern materials and detailing, the team successfully coupled the renovated portion of the mall's common area and the Intergovernmental Center with their 19th-century neighbors. The use of exterior brick and locally quarried Kasota stone, prevalent in much of the city's downtown architecture, brought together the various generations of construction. The addition and renovation continues the urban experience with pedestrian walkways and green space.

?We took a very complex series of structures and managed to tie them together into a packaged floor plan that flows very nicely. You would have a hard time believing that there was once a series of multiple buildings,? Hentges says.

Today, the 68,929-sf Intergovernmental Center occupies the block's north end. The Mankato Area Public Schools leases 6,111 sf on the first floor, which also contains conference rooms and the mayor's and city council's offices, as well as public facilities. The city occupies the 15,000-sf second floor with offices for the city manager, public information, public works, engineering, city attorney, housing, planning, economic development, information systems, finance, and human resources. The adjacent pedestrian plaza also faces the city's civic center, which hosts cultural events such as touring shows and music groups, as well as conventions.

Taking the lead role in this revitalization has served the city well and has encouraged other redevelopment in the downtown area. The adjacent mall is fully leased; the other original four-story anchor store is undergoing reconstruction; a nine-story, full-service hotel is slated to break ground within the year; and private dollars are being invested in new construction on adjacent blocks. ?[The city's] investment set off a chain of other reinvestments where businesses can now market to these [workers],? Filipovitch says.

In all, Mankato's economic payoff from the adaptive reuse was threefold, Hentges says. ?First, it helped create a core of employees ? both city and school. Second, it improved the value of other major complexes such as the Midwest Wireless Civic Center with the plaza. And third, it has provided a level of confidence to the private sector that they can invest in businesses because the city of Mankato invested in downtown,? he says.

Bryan J. Paulsen

Bryan J. Paulsen is principal and president of Mankato, Minn.-based Paulsen Architects. Contact him at 507.388.9811 or [email protected] Hormel Foods Corp. rehabbed a vacant 77,000-square-foot K-Mart store for its new corporate office and Spam Museum in Austin, Minn. Since it opened in Spetember 2001, the museum has drawn more than 200,000 visitors and generated more than $15 million. photos: Paulsen Architects   The adaptive reuse of Mankato, Minn.\'s Intergovernmental Center has redefined the city\'s central business district. Its combination of old and new structures, offices and retail tenants, and business and civic purposes provides a unique mixed-use environment.

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