Why Beautify a Dying City?
Unfortunately, the ship has sailed on "beautifying" downtown Albert Lea. Trying to make it a "historic district" is a ridiculous idea. There is very little left that is "historic" anymore. Very little of the character of Albert Lea that existed fifty years ago still exists. Even if it did, why start now? It's gone. It's all gone.
I do think there is a chance to make things more visitor friendly. But, let's look at the facts: geography works against such a plan:
The two green splotches across from each other on Fountain Lake are Fountain Lake Park and the Municipal Beach. Everything around there is either residential or commercial business property, including the city hall and fire department on East Fountain Street. This is a tightly-packed area where there is very little room to expand or grow. It is bordered by the expanding Mayo System on one side and the narrowing of the lake down to the channel.
For those that don't know, this is a highly congested area. St. Theodore's takes up a very important slice of this, as does a very old segment of residential homes. From left to right you have a downward funnel that feeds to major thoroughfares connecting two large parts of town; the old Wilson's packing house was down to the right and that land is contaminated and very difficult to use.
Couple that with the fact that Albert Lea Lake is not worth fixing unless you fix Fountain Lake (the large blue splotch you can see above), and you have a real problem of geography. The green splotch on the south side of the lake, which is Fountain Lake Park, is a slope down to the lake; when I was a kid, you could roll down the hill and not quite fall into Fountain Lake. I have to ask--why isn't there a boat landing here? A small marina with docks? Why not make it so 30-50 boats could tie up on the shore here? That would mean a direct linkage between downtown and the recreational use of the lake.
What people don't understand is that the streets are often busy and there is on-street parking; the original appeal of putting downtown on higher elevation was that you could park your car in front of the store you wanted to visit, you could get there from several different directions, and the area as a whole would avoid the flooding that sometimes occurs down by East Main and the channel to Albert Lea Lake.
How are you going to do anything here? Forget nostalgia. Albert Lea will never be Red Wing.
I say that you should radically reinvent the place through a combination of investment and getting people to bring the business here. Forget about prettying up neglected buildings. Forget about the sad sacks like Courtly Manor that went out of business because of bankruptcy and not because of the ridiculous bumpouts.
No, to hell with those people. The thing you have isn't working. Cosmetic fixes won't accomplish anything when the philosophy of it all has changed; people don't shop in downtown anymore because there is no reason to do so. Well, what you have to do is give them a reason to shop there. And, to do so, you have to make some huge, huge changes.
Knock down half of downtown. Knock half of it down and put something there that will draw people into the area. This means using the open space to create a destination that will draw people there from 20 miles away or more; this would mean attracting significantly more people than currently live in Albert Lea.
The only thing to do is to combine retail and recreation. I would find a way to link the beach to downtown with a broad pedestrian bridge (open in three seasons only) and anchor it safely on both ends. If you could walk across the lake and go from the beach to downtown on a summer's night, why wouldn't you? You could build two bumps in it for the boat traffic; you could suspend it in the air and watch idiots fall off of it for fun. You could make it so that it would be like a pontoon bridge or something like that. This would allow people to park on either side of the lake and walk across it rather than around it. You could even build a small island in the middle and make it a pedestrian thoroughfare.
The other thing I would do is, I would bring in a Target Store. Highway 13 and Broadway should be expanded to accommodate the traffic. Instead of putting a big box store out by the freeway where it can kill downtown, bring the big box store to downtown and get it over with already. Anchor your entire town on a complex featuring Target, an arts and crafts store, a Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and a grocery store.
Sound crazy? Yes, it probably is. But if you cleared two city blocks, you'd have room for a Target Store and maybe 3-5 restaurants. I would also consider a movie theater and an outdoor roller rink (summer) and ice skating rink in the winter.
I'd do it because it would at least be better than bitching:
You want ideas? I got ideas.