By Andrew Tellijohn
Bloomington’s South Loop contains the Minnesota River, a robust business community and shopping at Mall of America and Ikea, and it sits adjacent to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Travelers have conveniently stayed in its many hotels during major national and international sporting events and other attractions. But from a design perspective, it has, much like the rest of the city, taken on a mostly “meat and potatoes” utilitarian look.
City officials and a growing coalition of businesses, civic groups, and individuals are trying to change that approach going forward. As redevelopment takes hold in that part of Bloomington, they are teaming up on a creative placemaking strategy aimed at building a more artistic, social, and recognizable community.
“We look at it as a way to build a vibrant, distinct, sustainable community through the arts,” says Alejandra Pelinka, who was hired in June 2016 as the city’s first director of creative placemaking. “Creative placemaking not only physically changes spaces, but involves and empowers people who care about the area to interact and have a voice in shaping the place.”
Effort started five years ago
Creative placemaking is an evolving practice that uses the arts, culture, and creativity to drive a broader agenda for change, with the idea of improving an area’s character or quality. Pelinka and her position are new to the city, but Bloomington’s recognition of its desire to give itself a new look began more than a half-decade ago.
Bloomington Community Development Director Larry Lee made a presentation to the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce in 2012 about the city’s vision for redeveloping the South Loop. At the time, Lee had few specific ideas in mind, but he described a concept much different from the city’s current look. The presentation caught the attention of Andrea Specht, who was in the audience.
“I was really intrigued by it,” says Specht, executive director of a nonprofit organization called Artistry. “[The concept] was considerably more urban than anything else I had seen in Bloomington. It was clear they did view public art as a key part of bringing that kind of a walkable, urban sort of feel to the area. That piqued my interest for obvious reasons.”
She connected with Lee after the meeting, and they decided to collaborate. The city and Artistry, which aims to make art and artists an essential part of civic life, received a $100,000 “Our Town” grant in 2013 from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The funds are intended to help communities use creative placemaking to transform the area into a more livable and distinctive place. That grant— along with $75,000 from the city and another $100,000 in cash and in-kind goods and services from Artistry, corporate partners, and others—provided the $275,000 budget to get started.
The central goal was to use artists and art-related events to elevate awareness of the South Loop and attract more people to the area. The grant helped create a plan that involved three goals:
“The NEA launch period was really a great success,” says Specht, adding that Pelinka’s hiring as the creative placemaking director was key. While she and the city were committed to creative placemaking, creating that position allowed for someone to focus on maintaining the coalition and publicizing events as their main job.
“It all comes down to relationships,” she says. “It’s about getting people excited about something. There’s got to be someone really working to keep those diverse stakeholders involved.”
Events build momentum
The NEA grant also allowed the city and Artistry to start conducting a series of creative placemaking demonstration projects, aimed at learning how to work with artists within the city’s legal parameters, Specht says. The events started with the South Loop Discovery Charrette in the summer of 2014, a weeklong event that served as the public launch for the campaign.
The Discovery Charrette attracted more than 800 participants and generated excitement about the South Loop and placemaking. During the week, a variety of activities highlighted history and plans, and included walking tours, performances, and an “idea prize” contest with more than 100 entries.
The Charrette was a significant turning point for the project, says Cynthia Bemis Abrams, a former Bloomington city councilmember and long-time resident.
“From my perspective, it was such a big deal that it turned anyone who was left as a naysayer or skeptic,” says Bemis Abrams, who also was part of a Creative Placemaking Advisory Committee that met quarterly in 2015. “We’re getting something for all this work that has a chance to really improve the environment of our neighborhoods, first and foremost the South Loop. You can’t say no to it. That’s the energy.”
Several businesses and individuals from the area took part and through the success of that event, city officials say, a solicitation process was conducted to select “placemakers” (artists, designers, and other creative people) to implement four additional demonstration projects in 2015.
One event, for example, was the “Little Box Sauna,” which took place twice during the late winter in front of the Radisson Blu at Mall of America and at Ikea. This was a mobile warming house that created a place for people to interact during a communal “group sweat” experience.
Another event, called “At the Confluence of Science and Nature,” was held during the summer. Artist Erik Pearson created a large, exterior mural at Cypress Semiconductor, which borders the parking lot of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge Bass Ponds. As he was painting the mural, he invited visitors to pick up a brush and help with the painting.
The mural draws inspiration and images from the history of technology and semiconductors in the South Loop as well as the potential of “green” technologies. It expresses the unique blend of science and nature that has shaped the neighborhood’s past and will continue to influence its future. Now that the mural is a permanent fixture, people continue to visit and then go on to explore the Bass Ponds trail.
Planning for future events underway
During the past year, there have been several smaller initiatives in the area, but mostly the city and Artistry have been working to establish creative placemaking as an ongoing initiative. In addition to hiring Pelinka, the partners established a Creative Placemaking Commission that will oversee future efforts. Six members are appointed by the city, and three by Artistry.
“This year we hope to do a lot more engagement activities, to get people envisioning what they want to see in the area,” Pelinka says. They’re getting started on efforts to unveil more big plans that, stakeholders say, will take place in conjunction with the Super Bowl.
Making the area stand out
Bonnie Carlson, president and CEO of the Bloomington Convention and Visitors Bureau, sat on the advisory committee and she is an enthusiastic backer of the plans.
She says the city considers itself to be a major player in the region. But she also acknowledges that Bloomington lacks a striking visual art component that stands out as an identifier, such as the Spoonbridge and Cherry in Minneapolis.
“We want to create an experience, an art object, a visual—those things will come—that people will want to come and see,” Carlson says.
She acknowledges some impatience as it relates to waiting for the next placemaking event to occur.
“Like anyone, you want more,” she says. “You want it now. It’s exciting. You want to move it along in a positive way, because it’s such a great idea. But it takes time.”
Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minnesota.
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