Downtown retail: struggling, thriving, searching


Yesterday’s NDDC downtown forum focused on the state of retailing downtown.

Anne Bretts, managing editor at, has blogged about it: What would lure you downtown? (It’s an opinion piece, with an invitation to start a discussion.)

Ray Cox has blogged about it on his citizen blog: Business, taxes and ??? and his Northfield Construction blog: A strong downtown.

Ross Currier has blogged about it: Building and Business Owners Discuss Downtown Issues. Ross emailed me this additional reaction:

We were all surprised by how many people turned out. I guess that the Forum lived up to its premise, that beneath the bright surface of downtown, there are some serious structural challenges. The fact that over 50 people showed up on short notice, early in the morning, to talk about these issues makes me believe that folks really value downtown.

During the hours following the Forum I received a half dozen phone calls and e-mails from building and business owners that suggested that we have coffee. I think that such a large gathering may not be the best environment for sharing intimate economic details but it certainly seems to have touched on an important topic and triggered a reinvigorated discussion. Based on the calls and messages that I received, it appears that these folks are not only willing to talk but willing to commit to work to implement ideas to achieve tangible results in the next 12 months.

Here’s the audio from the first 43 minutes (not part of our LG podcast).


  1. victor summa said:

    I erred in my response to Jerry and Curt [see comment #99] In that comment it appear to be posted by Kiffi – while I did sign it as I often do [with my initials] it appears to be made by kiffi. Hope you’ll all forgive my error and credit me [blame me?] for the remarks in #99.

    A special apology to spousal ONE!

    Incidentally I had acknowledged this error earlier, but can’t find it here – so I must have erred there as well


    January 31, 2007
  2. Holly Cairns said:

    As downtown retailers: Who do you target? Is it the townsfolk, or the visitor? Or both?

    If it is the visitor or potential buyer, Do we know what is perceived by the outsider who knows little about Northfield? If we did, we might be able to adjust.

    For example, what if we found out that New movers were interested in “quaint” for shopping but also might like the Big Box Store option. Maybe some new movers won’t even like the city if there weren’t big box options.

    Personally, when I visit a city I notice if there are a lot of options, or does it seem antiquated? Quaint can be perceived as antiquated…

    I think it takes a mix of things to make people happy. It might take people who fight for vitality downtown AND big box stores, AND creativity. I LIKE CHOICE and I don’t like to drive for all the things I need. Why can’t we find balance instead of just focusing on ONLY DOWNTOWN? What about the the whole of the picture and thinking about vitality in general?

    Anyway, IMHO change is good. Old is out. New is in, and we don’t know everyone in town (we’re too big) and we don’t even know what the heck stores are downtown and so we might start there.

    January 31, 2007
  3. Nick Benson said:

    Victor –

    Refuting claims of elitism with French – brilliant!

    While it might be fun for you to frown upon those with darker collars than yours, Malt-O-Meal puts food on the table for more people than any other employer in Northfield.

    The mentality that any good employer is one who is in the service industry is snobby, arrogant, and downright foolish. It’s bad policy to ignore the large portion of the workforce that thinks it’s insane to spend $40,000 a year on a degree in puppetry.

    The motto “Colleges, Contentment, and Collars, White,” doesn’t have quite the same quaint ring to it, does it?

    February 1, 2007
  4. Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin said:

    So, what is the master plan for DT.? and what is the vision that emerged from such a great, engaged and amazing discussion.?

    After reading more about what NDDC does, I will look forward to their final conclusion and leadership to move all of the contributions into planning format so that actions can be taken to address all of the problems that arose during this conversation and I am sure will keep coming up, specially in the DT forums coming up.

    If I can be of service, let me know I have been working on the visionary document and plan for the Latino Enterprise Center as the core strategy for the economic aspect of the local Latino/a population and on the long term integration plan as part of the merging of civic engagement and economic development aspects.

    It will be great to now where the city’s vision is, investment priorities and the leadership of the NDDC so that I can incorporate those aspects into our own Latino/a sector planning to eventually integrate/merge our own work into the whole picture.

    Thank you for such an energizing discussion, it is time to make some strategic conclusions, time for the leaders to emerge.


    February 1, 2007
  5. victor summa said:

    Writ by Victor
    Responding to 103

    Nick Benson… Curt Benson… so many Bensons? I’ll confess to a bit of confusion there – for a moment.

    But to the kernel of NICK Benson’s reaction to my Curt Benson comment.

    Nick: If your claim, “Malt o Meal puts food on the table for more people than any other employer in Northfield, you’re referring to M-O-M’s the cereal producer, I agree. Obviously people all over the nation eat M-O-M products. I’m not aware of any other nationally distributed food stuffs made in the 55057 zip area. So, I agree, if that’s the meaning of your food on the table remark.

    But we both know that you’re talking about the number of employees, implying M-o-M is the largest N’fld employer.

    If that is your meaning, I believe your demographics are incorrect.

    My understanding is St. Olaf College is the single employer of the most people in Northfield. Coincidentally, I’m confident that many of the workers who owe their employment directly (or indirectly) to the College, hold what we both would classify as “blue Collar” jobs. Add in Carleton’s blue collar and that number increases.

    In Detroit they count employees “in the auto industry”. In Northfield we certainly could use, college employed, as a meaningful measure of high employment. [sic] good business.

    You imply I frown on Blue Collar workers. Hardly true. Before my 40 years as a Film and TV producer I have at least 15 years of hard work in the housing industry. Began as a ditch digger – and excepting my age, imagine I can out-dig many still today. I was a general laborer in the housing industry including: carrying lumber, cleaning up the plaster from the sub floors, and dismantling of the “out houses” . I’d call that a Dark-Blue Collar.

    Subsequently I became a carpenter. A little more pale, but still blue, right?

    Why is this important? Because those skills and that effort are deep roots in my work ethic, as well as in my expectations.

    You wrote of the Irony of my using French to disprove elitism. Hello, but I think of the rabble of the french… storming the Bastille… and all their French peasant relatives. I’m a lot closer to them than Marie Antoinette.

    If you feel my perspective is elitist, my blue collar roots undo me… I must be too inarticulate for you to grasp my meaning.

    You write of the $40 K a year cost to get a degree in puppetry ( I assume that’s a reference to someone you’ve heard of who went to college and works puppets.) and further, that I consider that career path more worthwhile than some undefined blue collar worker with no degree… and then, charge me with being “snobby, arrogant, and downright foolish.” Can’t prove you wrong. Believe me you are… but… what does any of this have to do with business growth in Northfield?

    My point has been… we are geographically challenged to find contiguous land to develop for big businesses… and we are fiscally challenged to develop and acquire these otherwise, far-fringe areas.

    Conversely, we have the opportunity (I’d argue, the responsibility) to improve the environment of the business climate, by improving the DT and its fringe, first… do so with far greater ease and at a lesser cost, while providing amenities to the citizens with the development of these new found uses.

    That’s not elitism, it is smart growth.

    Additionally, I think the most likely business to seek asylum in our community (In what I’ve called the Far-Fringe) would likely be associated with education [sic] the colleges, or the hospital… as the medical industry inevitably grows. Could be health care, insurance, research, or a lot of associated activities that I haven’t thought of. Might also be an ambulance service garage full of greasy blue collar auto workers.

    Finally, your focus on the community’s motto “Colleges, Cows, Contentment, etc. provides me with a relevant response.

    The Colleges are still here and thriving. The cows are long gone… and likely the Contentment was “tongue in check”. Regardless, signage that heralds those characteristics is cvute, but relatively meaningless, when compared to the newer sign out on I-35 that attests to Northfield’s Historic Downtown. As to community growth, suffice to say… what I envision for Northfield is development tailored to the scope and the scale of the community. Not OUT SIZING it for the sake of big business’s bottom line.


    February 1, 2007
  6. Nick Benson said:

    Victor, I didn’t mean to insult you personally, if I did I apologize. I’ll use fewer adjectives and get right to the point this time around 😉

    According to the Northfield Chamber of Commerce, Malt-O-Meal has 1100 employees, compared to about 800 at St. Olaf.

    I heard there was a kid who used the “design a degree” program at Carleton to major in puppetry, which doesn’t seem too practical. I was saying white collar (college degree) jobs don’t guarantee success (college degree in puppetry). In other words, effort should be made to attract employers to Northfield regardless of what color their collar is. The broader the economic base the better. The appropriate motto would be “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.”

    I may very well be wrong though… I don’t have a degree in economic development.

    February 1, 2007
  7. Jim Bohnhoff said:

    Hello All,
    This is the third time I have attempted to contribute some words of wisdom to this fray of a downtown blog. Each time I have submitted my Comment – nothing has happened.
    What should I do?
    I will try again….
    “Downtown retail: struggling, thriving, searching”
    I don’t know about the downtown – but there sure is a lot of struggling and searching in the 106 responses I have been reading for the past couple of days.
    My suggestion to everyone would be to Take a nice leisurly Walk around town… even in the brisk fresh air … you can see what a great place we have… so first put on your cap, mittens and scarf … and walk out to the middle of the pedestrian bridge and enjoy the view… then head over to Bridge Square … stop and take a nice long look at the icy falls… and head to either of the 4 coffee shops within a block of the square… things aren’t really so bad … I have had the opportunity to work in the downtown for over 30 years … let me tell you things have been changing for the BETTER… not perfectly … but pretty darn good… I can’t tell you how long we waited for a new restaurant … and in one fell swoop Norman came to town and we had a fun pub and a quality restaurant… and after six years they are still in business… Bravo!
    Starting a business is not for the faint of heart or the skitterish – no matter what kind of business you start – it takes a whole lotta work – with no promises for success. So we are all a part of a successful downtown. Lets work together to make it an enjoyable and Hospitable place. Not just argue about this and that.
    Well that is my start at blogging. Thanks for Listening – I like this town and hope to see it continue to prosper.
    Jim Bohnhoff

    February 1, 2007
  8. Peter Waskiw said:

    Comments to Nick and Victor,
    Nick thanks for the info. I’ve added my own professional two cents worth here, but I am glad that we are starting to “connect the dots” and digging deeper into this issue. (I’m starting to run out of horsy jokes) By understanding how many workers each employer has, we can ask the question: Where do these employees live? How many live in Northfield? What part of town and how do they get to work?

    You may say, what has this has to do with economic vitality of the DT or Northfield as a whole. Well, the answer is everything.

    In economic studies for commercial/retail and industrial development, worker locations, transportation, and supporting infrastructure (including other supportive goods and services) are always taken into account.

    (side bar – ask Norman Butler where and by whom he gets his food item delivered and how much?)

    Continuing, another important feature is the balancing in the job market (local and regionally). A robust job market = robust local economy. There is a balance between this idea of supply and demand. Take this a step further, we have all heard of the term ‘bed room’ community. So, if there is more opportunity to attract employees to live and work in Northfield, this will have an impact on the broad economic health of Northfield. This also begs the question, what housing price ranges is Northfield offering. A quick study in the average prices of new home in Northfield will tell you that, plus remember, quantity is also important, how many houses in each range, low, medium, high.

    We have all heard of bringing more people DT to live, this is a good livable communities strategy (that ones for you Victor), but again economies of scale plays into the equation. The market can only sustain a certain number of condos. One recent example (we all know) demonstrates that point. But DT housing is only one factor, it is important to supply housing to people who want to live and work in Northfield as an affordable level. If I remember correctly that was also a misunderstood policy in the existing CP.

    Over to you.

    February 2, 2007
  9. victor summa said:

    By Vic – or should it be “bye vic!

    Nick: No insult inferred – or at least I’m to immune to take offense. Absolutly no need for apology. It was a good perspective excahnge.

    Frankly, I like people to respond openly to any comment made here. mine, yours or Peter’s, for example.

    Yes, I’m suspect of the Chamber’s numbers. Regardless, as I don’t see my intentions designed to keep blue collar workers down and out… I don’t see a disconnect here.

    Clearly, balanced growth tailored to the scope and scale ofthe community is best. Would you agree?

    If not, let’s talk about that.

    Incidentally my feeling re: empowered units such as the EDA is that they DON’T “talk” at least about these things, to any reasonable end. They do spend time planning a work matrix, revising it so that they might-deal with these issues.. and that’s talking… but it’s mostly talking about, how to talk about the issues.. or who to hire, to dismiss any effort they finally seem to be inclined to appear to advance. Perish the thought, more experts, more consultants. You, me, Pete and a handful of other lurkers could have a more progressive ( and possibly aggressive) dialogue. I think again, my limited verbal skills undo me. I believe that both Tracy and Ross could comment about the EDA process, if they choose to. Tracy for example has proven to be far more proactive here in venting opinion than I perceive she was as a member of the EDA. Shut down?

    Was it gender imbalance… or too much respect for civility in discourse and the anonymity of E talk feeling safer. I was always amused by the physical action following saying something challenging (at the EDA meetings) then emphasizing your remark with the dramatic rise from your chair, then with an air of dismissivness, the casual stroll to the coffee pot for a hot refill. An actors on-stage device for avoiding the cynical stare.

    Perhaps Tracy feels she was a tigress on the Authority. I too often felt the underlying rumble was more polite purring.

    So now if I tag this with a colon a hyphen and a parens it’s okay, right? i.e. 🙂

    As to the Carleton kid enamored w/puppets – have you experienced the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater in MPls? Remember Kookala Fran & Ollie? 60s TV (maybe your too young) Even I’m too young for the Commedia dell’arte… Punch and Judy. The Renaissance, right?. Sounds good to me. Hey puppets ain’t bad. Early in my personal TV career, I hosted a Kids show – Pook the 200 lb. Elf – we had puppets… I loved the puppets. I talked w/them. No, let the Carleton Kid pursue puppets, Jonas Salk work on vaccines and Bush with his Ivy League degree, look for weapons in the dessert. All of those activities will involved some blue and some white collars. There’s room for all of you. I’m retired.

    So, we agree? Balanced growth as much as possible… tailored to the scope and scale of the community, expanding wisely as opportunities evolve and reaching I-35 with Smart Growth by 2050. Did I mention the street car line out to the freeway?

    YOU WROTE “I may very well be wrong though… I don’t have a degree in economic development.”

    I doubt that any current or former member of the EDA does or any did.. or any city council member past or present… Tracy or Anne, Peter or Kiffi… Griff and Ross… and I don’t either!

    But, could I have gotten a degree in Dissenting? Hmm-mm?


    February 2, 2007
  10. Nick Benson said:

    I’m sorry to say that I’m too young to have seen the golden age of puppetry first hand, but what does that have to do with anything?

    City planning is an interesting field… I’m going to try to take a course or two in that area before I graduate with my degree in geography. Let’s hope it works out better than puppetry.

    February 2, 2007
  11. victor summa said:

    frm Victor

    Nick – you brought it (puppetry) up; I thought, as a reason to not support White collar development over Blue – I merely was trying to make a case for the potential value in puppetry (Any arts/cultural effort) as opposed to tire factories, tanneries, or wheaties… especially in Northfield, today… with what we’ve got going for us – and in fact with what we’ve got (ABCD) that is virtually unique. e.g. Small town environs, two world class colleges, historic DT and for MANY intents and purposes, landlocked by so much geography and sociology.

    Geography degree. I’d love to hear your feeling about Northfield’s geographic advantages – disadvantages… a theme I’ve been clanging on for the past ten years – ever since the big boxes put their “colonial” boot on our turf!

    How for example, from a geographer’s point of view the burgeoning corporate take over of the globe effects geography issues; food shelter, tillable soil, water preservation/pollution and air pollution… not to mention global warming… and then, if you can, tie that back to Northfield.. and it’s position and responsibility to become a model global community. You could start with the two college wind turbines, ethanol in Bridgewater, highway traffic, and future industry in N’fld.


    February 2, 2007

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