By Janet Cass
Hastings, a city of 22,000 people 30 miles south of St. Paul, has for years been a quiet place with a historic downtown area near the Mississippi River. It was very nice, but the community had a vision for a downtown and riverfront area that offered so much more—a place that would provide activities and attractions for residents and visitors alike.
Now, that vision is reality. After years of planning, the first two phases of the three-phase “Riverfront Renaissance” project are complete, and the last phase will be done soon. The project was the winner of a League of Minnesota Cities 2016 City of Excellence Award.
In the 1980s, the city began investing in the downtown area. Providing funding to renovate historic buildings and to purchase industrial sites along the riverfront created an attractive situation for new development. In 2003, the city adopted the Heart of Hastings Plan to reinvigorate its downtown and riverfront, a plan spurred forward by the 2013 completion of the new U.S. Highway 61 bridge that passes right over the edge of downtown.
Other developments add to excitement
In addition to the Riverfront Renaissance, other public/private redevelopment efforts were underway. Those partnerships leveraged significant remediation and development grants worth over $4.5 million. The Riverfront Renaissance has facilitated private investment, including transformation of a vacant 100,000-square- foot manufacturing plant, which the city’s economic development authority purchased several years ago with a vision for an active, vibrant addition to downtown. This redevelopment—called Great River Landing—will be a mixed-use space designed to house 60 new apartments and 24,000 square feet of commercial space. Also due to begin this year is construction of Hastings Artspace Lofts, a three-story mixed-use building on the east end of downtown that will contain 37 live-work artist units and 2,200 square feet of commercial space.
New business, more visitors
Wasn’t there pushback to new businesses in Great River Landing from established businesses in the city? “Not at all,” recalls Mayor Paul Hicks. ” Our downtown businesses realize the potential benefit of having new residents move into the area in the newly created housing that’s part of the Great River Landing project. The new businesses that will be a part of that project will complement the downtown business environment.”
In fact, a primary reason to renovate the manufacturing site was to use its visibility from the Highway 61 bridge to entice potential visitors into Hastings, and to provide housing for new residents who will patronize existing downtown businesses. Plans for Great River Landing limit small retail space in order to avoid competing directly against existing businesses.
“We view development of our downtown ‘bookends’—Great River Landing to the west and Artspace to the east—as growth of the downtown area,” explains John Hinzman, community development director and executive director of the Hastings Economic Development and Redevelopment Authority (HEDRA). By way of proof, “There’s been a definite increase in people coming [to downtown],” reports Tony Berens, president of the Downtown Business Association.
Funds for reinvigoration elsewhere in the city included those raised by the local Rotary Club to build an amphitheater-style pavilion in the city’s Veterans Memorial Levee Park. Local fundraising is one measure of community buy-in, as was the composition of the project’s vision committee, which included representatives from all sectors of the community. Support for Riverfront Renaissance from elected officials was another factor facilitating seamless collaboration between the city and HEDRA, notes Hinzman, who adds that two city councilmembers serve on HEDRA.
The first and third phases of Riverfront Renaissance focused on downtown infrastructure, streetscapes, and redevelopment of vacant space within the core downtown area. One infrastructure improvement was retrofitting all existing light fixtures—including the old-fashioned streetlamps that contribute to Hastings’ historic character—with LED lighting. This is expected to pay for itself in four years.
Streetscape improvement included installing trees and plantings along sidewalks to encourage strolling, while private improvements adjacent to the project footprint included rehabilitating a long-vacant church into an arts center. In addition, small parks were renovated or created to make downtown more family-friendly and to encourage movement within the area to support businesses.
The existing Oliver’s Grove Park was renovated, and vacant land next to a parking lot was reborn as Depot Park, complete with children’s play equipment. Next to Depot Park, a bicycle fix-it station was installed to promote bicycling, a popular Hastings-area activity that takes advantage of the city’s location alongside the Mississippi River Trail.
Reviving nearby park
A major aim of the second phase was to increase the use of the three-acre Veterans Memorial Levee Park. Since the park neighbors the downtown business district, attracting more visitors to the park was envisioned as a way to increase spillover traffic into the downtown district to support businesses. Because the park also abuts the river, the park’s existing river overlook was resurfaced and received new railing and picnic tables.
On one edge of the park, additional parking for people with disabilities was added at the park’s new drop-off spot, installed next to a new heated bathroom that is accessible to people with disabilities, as are all new amenities installed at the park.
The drop-off marks the entrance to a new walkway that invites visitors farther into the park. Following that path leads to the Rotary Pavilion and the surrounding amphitheater, which gives audiences a view of the river.
The city hired a recreation programming specialist specifically to plan pavilion-based events last summer, says City Administrator Melanie Mesko Lee. The specialist’s directive was to spark a new focus on park activity, accomplished by programming “no- and low-cost activities for our residents and visitors as a way to highlight Riverfront Renaissance’s new features and to bring attention to this investment as a destination for residents and visitors,” she explains.
City seed money was designated for the 30-plus events planned for the inaugural season. The city engaged with local sponsors to help offset some of the expense, with a goal of eventually reducing its programming costs through sponsorships. “We were well aware that additional resources may be warranted with the new park and built in additional staff resources to accommodate trash removal, main¬tenance, etc.,” Mesko Lee says.
Phase 2 also moved the existing trail from its location along the edge of the river to one farther inland, creating space between the trail and river for native plants to be planted to buffer surface water runoff. The new buffer area protects human safety as well as water quality by separating the trail and the river, while allowing unfettered visual access to the river.
“From my perspective, the initial impact and potential future impact on tourism is an immediate ROI,” reports Hastings Communications Coordinator Lee Stoffel, who announced the grand reopening of Levee Park on Facebook in May.
Since then, “We’ve had a 37 percent increase in Facebook followers and a 48 percent jump on Twitter,” Stoffel says. “We have seen a major jump in our online following, with increased interaction and much further reach, evidence of an increased interest in Hastings as a destination for visitors. Prior to this effort, our social media saw slow, but steady growth—never a huge jump like this, and never so many new followers from outside of Hastings.”
According to Mesko Lee, increased use of Levee Park and an uptick in downtown visitors have been reported anecdotally; Hastings’ tourism bureau is in the process of measuring increased spending by visitors.
Look back, move forward
In 2017, and beyond, Hastings plans to broaden its reputation as a destination by drawing from surrounding communities as well as from the Twin Cities metro area, says Mesko Lee.
Riverfront Renaissance has increased awareness of and appreciation for Hastings, both within the city and among its visitors. It accomplished this by renewing the city’s historical identity as a river town, and by creating new and more ways for people to appreciate the riverfront where Hastings originated.
Janet Cass is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.
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