OUR VIEW: When will we wake up to our downtown crisis?
Some people are angered by the headline we published Wednesday about Mitchell’s downtown.
We hope they’re angry enough to do something about it.
The news we broke Wednesday about two businesses leaving — our headline said “fleeing” — Main Street for a new strip mall south of Interstate 90 is the latest example of downtown’s long and painful decline.
Some other modern lowlights:
Five downtown buildings have been destroyed by fire since 1992: the Lawler Hotel, the Roxy Cinema, the State Theatre, the Janitor’s Express building, and the Cactus Bar and Casino.
In 2011 at the highly symbolic corner of First and Main, a wall in the Longhorn Bar — at that time the city’s oldest structure — collapsed. The city demolished it, and the work damaged a shared wall with the building’s neighbor, the VFW Lounge, which the city also bought to eventually raze.
Exactly one year ago today in the 200 block of North Main, a 3-foot-wide chunk of stone fell from the vacant former Mitchell National Bank building onto the sidewalk below, luckily injuring no one.
An alarmingly large portion of downtown Mitchell is burning and crumbling to the ground. It’s difficult to admit that, especially since we’re located downtown and want it to thrive. Yet we don’t see any large-scale, collective effort to stop the methodically advancing crisis.
Granted, there is a downtown advocacy group, Mitchell Main Street & Beyond, that is doing what it can to assist downtown property owners and merchants. But the group’s resources are inadequate to stem the tide of decay that is washing over Main Street and its collection of century-or-more-old buildings.
City government has taken some positive steps, including the planned renovation of the Corn Palace and construction of a new southern downtown City Hall. The increased schedule of Corn Palace concerts of late has brought more people downtown.
But it’s not enough. Many aging structures downtown are too deteriorated to attract private investment. A publicly backed redevelopment campaign is needed.
Our idea is a downtown redevelopment commission backed by city dollars — we’re talking six figures — that can buy up and renovate downtown structures, build new structures where others burned or were demolished, or issue loans or grants to private developers who conduct significant redevelopment projects. We’re not talking facade or roof improvements, which an existing downtown loan fund already supports. We’re talking major overhauls of structures in desperate need of it, and new construction.
When a project is complete and commercial or residential renters move in, perhaps the improved condition of the building and the inflow of rental payments could entice private entrepreneurs to buy it. Money from the sale of buildings could be reinvested to fund additional projects.
Would it work? We don’t know, but we believe it’s the kind of drastic action needed to reverse downtown’s downward spiral. Other actions are needed, too, including a streetscape project proposed by Mitchell Main Street & Beyond and voter approval in June of wine service at downtown’s outdoor cafes.
The alternative is to do nothing as more buildings burn and crumble, more businesses leave, and the burgeoning I-90 district continues to pull dollars and shoppers south.
The downtown area is where Mitchell was born. It’s our city’s heart. It’s home to the history and memories that knit our community’s social fabric together.
How many more signs of its death will we need before we try to shock it back to life?