LITTLE FALLS -- For Little Falls the future of its downtown is directly tied to the city's past.
Lumber barons, state politicians and a world-famous aviator are part of the city's heritage. The Little Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau receives 4,000 to 6,000 requests for information each year from potential visitors. Cathy VanRisseghem, convention and visitors bureau director, said most of the people are attracted by the area's history.
She said for years people asked what is Little Falls. To the north there was a Brainerd lakes identity and to the south a retail, metro-like feeling in St. Cloud. Little Falls was halfway between.
VanRisseghem said so many areas in downtown remained untouched since the city's beginnings. Little Falls has a history that was still available beyond old photos. And marketing efforts were directed to capitalize on a historic rivertown identity. The city council was critical to recognizing the importance of preserving the downtown area, VanRisseghem said.
"You need the city backing you in all of this," she said. "If you don't have your city council behind you -- you don't have anything. Little Falls has been fortunate in that respect."
As the 1990s began downtown gained greater focus. A Main Street program was started based on preservation, promotion, economic development and revitalization. A nonprofit group was formed and a director put in place. VanRisseghem served on one of the group's committees, the board and then as director.
The Main Street program was merged into the chamber of commerce, which eventually dropped it along with other projects like the riverfest festival and the tourism committee. Independent efforts started up again. The nonprofit convention and visitors bureau was formed.
The downtown established a business association about a year ago. And the West Side Improvement Association was formed recently to keep the established fall arts and crafts fair on the west side after the chamber announced the fair was moving across the river. The association was successful in keeping the fair location. And this spring another group, consisting of businesswomen, was formed to promote the city's downtown, east and west business districts and attractions.
Little Falls' traditional downtown, and its wider business area with a mix of east and west business districts, remains a major hub of activity. The stores are a mix -- bakery, floral, optical, fitness, appliance, bridal, gift, movie theater, banks, furniture, antique office and service. Large-scale murals capture city street views of the past.
Beyond renovation, construction is bringing new business to the downtown and others restored vacant buildings. Vehicles stream along four lanes of traffic that lead to the "bank square" in the heart of downtown at the intersection of Broadway and First streets.
The Mississippi riverfront, with its characteristic low banks, is mainly a city park system. The dedicated green space is just a block or so from the downtown. Businesses that line the downtown's main streets have a backyard view of parks and river. Just blocks from the heart of downtown is a landscaped boat landing. On Sundays there are concerts in the nearby park.
Historic turn-of-the-century homes survived and thrived as private residences and public buildings. A Little Falls Heritage Preservation Commission was created. A historic street light project was created and implemented.
Removing facades and restoring the original downtown business fronts gained help from a city effort that provided low-interest loans for the work. And several years ago downtown businesses began partnerships with the city to get financial help to restore store fronts. Efforts restored brick and glass and steel store fronts. The city installed globe lights reminiscent of the past.
Renovation efforts received state awards for preservation of historic resources. And a multi-page color brochure points out history and highlights for a walking and driving tour of the city.
Highway traffic was routed out of the city's main path in 1974 with a bypass. Nearly 30 years later the bypass continues to come up in conversation for loss of downtown business traffic.
Now renewed efforts with cooperative marketing by downtown business owners is focused at both the tourist and bringing back area residents who have not shopped in the downtown area for a variety of reasons.
Little Falls area has attractions like Lindbergh State Park, which attracts 70,000 people annually, the Pine Grove Zoo, the Musser and Weyerhaeuser mansions that make up Linden Hill, the Minnesota Fishing Museum and the nearby Camp Ripley Military Museum and yet VanRisseghem said there was a local disconnect between places.
People at the attractions were not telling people about the downtown district and the downtown was not telling shoppers about attractions, VanRisseghem said. Now efforts are more coordinated and if a tourist group bus with men and women is coming to one of the museums, they include an option of a bus trip to split up the group and take shoppers to the antique shops and retail businesses downtown.
"And many of the buses are doing that," VanRisseghem said.
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