AITKIN -- Aitkin, the city known for its thriving main street, is strengthening its future by looking at its past.
A major downtown streetscape project next spring will bring new sidewalks, trees and streetlights along with street and sewer improvements. The streetlights will be similar to those originally in the city.
"It's exciting," said Carroll Kukowski, Aitkin Area Chamber of Commerce executive director. "We've been waiting a very long time for this."
Seasonal and year-round Aitkin residents lined the streets as Minnesota Avenue was closed for the annual Moonlight Madness. Games and picnic tables replaced traffic. The event began about five years ago when the Aitkin chamber's retail committee started a customer appreciation night with retailers and offices joining forces to buy food and then serve it to customers. Brainerd Dispatch/Renee Richardson
Kukowski said when it's all done the city will have a wonderful old-fashioned main street that will continue to attract people. This summer, seasonal and year-round residents lined the streets for events that included a watermelon seed-spitting contest and a bed race on Minnesota Avenue, the main street here, for the Moonlight Madness annual event. In November, the crowds were back for the annual World Famous Fish House Parade. The fire hall addition is expected to be completed in January.
Driving in Aitkin, it may be easy to forget the city has its own summer influx of cabin residents. Aitkin has 365 lakes within 10 miles of the stoplight as the crow flies.
Michael Paulbeck, general manager of Paulbeck's SuperValu in Aitkin, said the city used to be a resort town and turned into a summer destination as the area went from resorts to residential cabins.
"People find more reasons to be in Aitkin and out of the metro every day," he said.
Paulbeck owns the grocery store -- which has been in the community since 1950 -- with his parents, Greg and Gloria. The Paulbecks are opening a County Market in Aitkin and plan to break ground on construction this spring. The new 36,000-square-foot grocery store is expected to open in the fall. Michael Paulbeck said the SuperValu store, with 20,000 square feet, was landlocked and needed a larger facility to compete. County Market will allow them to expand meat and deli departments and carry more inventory. The move will shift the store to the edge of town west from Pamida along U.S. 169.
County: Aitkin, county seat.
Major employers: Riverwood Health Care Center, Aitkin School District, Aitkin County, Paulbeck's SuperValu Foods, Aicota Health Care Center, Cummings Oil, Aitkin Iron Works, Lakes State Lumber, Woodland Container, Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative.
Notable attractions: Main street shopping.
Notable events: Fish House Parade, Moonlight Madness, Riverboat Heritage Days.
"It's not that we want to move to the edge of town, it's that we have to build the facility that Aitkin needs," Paulbeck said.
The SuperValu employs 65. Additional workers will be needed with the new store. The Paulbecks hope to find a retail store to move into the SuperValu.
The city has not been without challenges in 2004. United Steelworkers Local 5859 went on strike at Aitkin Iron Works in April. Forty employees were on strike. Kukowski said the strike just faded away several months ago with some employees going back to Aitkin Iron Works while others moved on to other jobs. She said the community tried to honor the strike and it was not as difficult as other strikes have been in the past.
Greg Paulbeck, a lifelong Aitkin resident, said he hasn't spent more than seven days away from the community and is enthusiastic about its future.
"I've never been more excited about Aitkin ever," he said. "I see some significant things happening in Aitkin. It just seems to me the whole community has been poised for something significant to happen."
Paulbeck said there has been a significant number of people building homes or making former seasonal cabins into secondary or primary residences. New arrivals are retiring or semi-retiring to the area. Paulbeck said the Riverwood Health Care Center's recent expansion helped fuel the growth.
While the growth may have snuck up on the area a little, Paulbeck said aggressive merchants are realizing the change and are positioning themselves to meet the coming needs of these new residents.
"I think in another two or three years Aitkin is going to have a whole new look to it and it's going to be a good look and the people in the area are going to be served well. And change and progress like that breeds more change and progress. Once the snowball starts to roll, it continues."
Two more businesses are working to secure adjoining land to the County Market project, Paulbeck said. When one business moves, he said the vacated space presents an opportunity for others. Additional announcements about growth in Aitkin are expected in the next few months.
Aitkin Mayor Mark Wedel said the city is looking at the annexation of 20 acres on the south side for additional business space. And there are projects on the drawing board that will be good for the community. He said the city has more residents and business expansion. Wedel said in the last election there were a couple of hundred new voters in the city.
"Aitkin is growing."
RENEE RICHARDSON can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.
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