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Spotlight on properties

City looks to build up downtown Minot

Jill Schramm/MDN Main Street has attracted entrepreneurs but the City of Minot wants to encourage increased vitality, starting with its own investment in the former Wells Fargo building, at left, for a new downtown city hall.

In striving for a more vibrant downtown, Minot leaders are looking to spruce up buildings, create more options for under-utilized buildings and find new uses for properties that Trinity Health eventually will no longer need.

City government should have a role in ensuring these changes happen, said Minot City Council member Paul Pitner. The city needs to promote loan and grant tools already available and then consider whether the city should also invest, as it did in replacing downtown infrastructure a few years ago, he said.

“We can’t just sit there and wait for something to happen. We have to take an active role,” Pitner said.

A downtown building will be undergoing renovation with city investment. The city purchased the former Wells Fargo bank building for $2.6 million for a new city hall. The city has hired an architect, who is conducting a space analysis and designing floor plans.

The city also has tasked its economic developer, Jonathan Rosenthal, with spearheading implementation of community recommendations related to downtown development. Rosenthal said initial projects could move forward once funding is identified.

File Photo Trinity Hospital is one of the properties to be vacated when the health system completes and moves into a new facility in southwest Minot, projected to occur in 2023. A committee will be looking into the future of Trinity’s vacated downtown buildings.

One proposal is to create a forgivable loan program for downtown property owners to encourage and support renovations to their buildings’ facades. Rosenthal said the renovations should preserve the historic features of the buildings and the original architectural intent.

In working with the Downtown Business & Professional Association, the city’s approach has been to design a program that supports renovation of the entirety of a building’s facade and not just the lower, street level face of the structure. A program also would require that a building’s roof be in good shape and the building be fully secured, such as eliminating any windows that have gaps allowing pigeon entry.

“A facade program is a wonderful opportunity to regain some of that original historic architectural intent,”said Josh Wolsky, interim director for the Downtown Business & Professional Association. “Those buildings are a particular challenge for the owners. There are significant new code requirements that have gone into place, which make renovations and improvements considerably more complicated than other projects.”

Brain Billingsley, the city’s director of Community Development, said property owners would be expected to have some level of financial stake in the improvements.

Minot Mayor Shaun Sipma said investing city dollars in such projects would be difficult at this time.

“We are running too many big projects to basically try to solve all the problems ourselves on the tax dollars,” he said. Rather, he said, the city needs to highlight every opportunity for redevelopment and remain business-friendly to help with that process.

Although the improvements might not directly translate to increased business income, there could be savings with any accompanying energy efficiencies. Property owners also could see new revenue if efforts to incentivize use of under-utilized buildings comes to fruition.

Rosenthal said the city is working with private banks on a potential revolving loan fund for property owners interested in turning vacant upper levels of their buildings into housing.

He said there are many buildings with only first-floor occupancy.

“All these upper floors are greatly under-utilized and they have been that way for half a century or more,” he said. “If we don’t take some active role, it will continue to be that way.”

Rosenthal said utilizing upper floors will increase the value of the properties, which is advantageous to the city. Attracting residents who have disposable income to spend downtown also benefits merchants directly, he said.

“We know that – and we’ve seen it in other places – when you have people living in the downtown, they create more customers for the businesses on the main floor,” Wolsky said. “They create more atmosphere for the people who are visiting downtown because people attract people.”

Wolsky said momentum has already started in many respects and just needs to be given a nudge to keep it going.

“The private sector has already identified the opportunity and they’re doing what they can, but some of those other challenges are really significant,” he said.

“We really owe a lot to these individuals that have invested downtown and show that it can be done. They’re not easy projects. You have to have a passion for it,” Pitner said. “That’s the goal with economic development is to have these tools in the toolbox for the city and for private investment to make sure that they’re able to capitalize on these and make these projects viable.”

Pitner said the city’s economic development fund, the MAGIC Fund, is a tool that hasn’t been maximized. The fund needs to be more strategic and flexible, he said.

“To tax citizens, just to let their money sit in a bank account, isn’t, to me, the highest and best use of those funds. We have to put them to work for the city of Minot,” he said. Rather than saving up for home runs, the city needs to put some focus on the base hits that add up and make a home run that much better, he said.

“We have to invest in the people that are here and the people that want to be here, the people that want to invest here,” he said. “Would you want one primary sector win that gives you 100 jobs? Or would you rather have 10 different businesses that you invest in that give you each 10 jobs. The diversification is going to be better in the long run.”

The focus on downtown development has been heightening as progress is made on construction of a new hospital and clinic in southwest Minot, moving Trinity Health closer to the day when it will vacate some of its downtown properties.

Efforts have begun to organize a committee to investigate repurposing the buildings.

Randy Schwan, a Trinity vice president, said Trinity already has had conversations and input into studies on facility planning for downtown. Those discussions identified the former health sciences building as a location for a future Career and Technical Education Center.

“We look to partner with others as well and repurpose some of these facilities,” Schwan said. “People have expressed some interest but right now we’re just listening to possibilities and learning how we might plug into that to improve downtown.”

Schwan said Trinity will continue to use the leased Medical Arts building, St. Joseph’s hospital building and parking ramp and Health Center West, which would continue to house out-patient services. Trinity will not be using Trinity Hospital or the Health Center East building across the street, which houses a pharmacy, medical library and certain specialty practices.

Pitner said the first step is to find out more about Trinity’s plans.

“When they’re ready to broach the topic, the city would be willing to listen and see what the plan is and see what their intentions are and how we can collaborate,” he said.

Pitner said it will be important to gather as much information as possible before making a decision on the viability of rehabbing buildings, demolishing buildings or repurposing buildings.

Sipma said he expects the Trinity properties committee to begin work in mid-summer.

“We do have a little bit of time, but we certainly don’t want to squander what time we do have left,” Sipma said. “We’ve got to get everybody together to look at all potential possibilities because it’s that important to the community.

“Once the Canadian border reopens, we don’t want Minot just to be a gas stop or a rest stopover place on the way to other communities in North Dakota. So I think it’s important to put some re-emphasis on the uniqueness of our downtown and general retail of Minot,” he said. “We are a commercial hub, but we definitely need to put some emphasis back on that.”

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