In Faribault, a renaissance town center
FARIBAULT — Nort Johnson grew up a few blocks from historic Faribault. In the 1970s, downtown business in the town of Rice County was booming: florists and bakeries, a camera store and clothing store, and three pharmacies, all in an idyllic downtown and accessible on foot.
But after Johnson graduated in 1982 and moved away, the forces went after the historic district of Faribault. First it was shopping malls. Then came the big box stores closer to the highways, which tried to capture every shopping dollar. When Johnson returned to his hometown 15 years ago, the historic district still had remnants of a nostalgic, thriving small town: the century-old buildings on the five-block strip, its proximity to the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail and the 743-acre River Bend Nature Center, the Depot Bar and Grill’s reliable gathering spot.
But for Johnson, something was missing.
This is not the case today. Faribault’s historic district serves as a model for moving a downtown strip into the future while paying homage to the past.
“Downtown Faribault is a great example of a neighborhood that is evolving to meet the desires of people who want experiential shopping, ethnic stores, entertainment, activities,” said Johnson, President and CEO. of the Faribault region chamber of commerce. “The circle is almost complete.”
As the city has grown in population—it’s grown nearly 50% since Johnson graduated in 1982, to 24,000—the historic downtown has experienced a renaissance.
As of 2018, the downtown business district has 17 businesses. More than $12 million in public and private funds have been invested in downtown buildings, from new roofs and sprinkler systems to two new apartment buildings.
Over the past three years, Faribault Main Street and the Faribault Economic Development Authority have awarded $75,000 in micro-grants to 21 recipients. The micro-grants help businesses open or expand and have gone toward everything from an industrial-grade coffee roaster to new signage for the Cardboard Vault collectibles store to building a second outdoor patio at Corks & Pints wine bar and tap house.
The key to revitalization, however, is that the infusion of new is done in concert with the old.
“It’s still that historic downtown,” Faribault Mayor Kevin Voracek said. “It was not bulldozed and rebuilt.”
It’s crucial to Minnesota’s second-largest historic district, after St. Paul. Many of these downtown buildings, all two or three stories tall, date back to the 1880s, when the milling industry brought considerable wealth to this strip along the Straight River. The massive gray stones that make up many of these historic buildings come from a quarry west of Faribault and give the town center a distinct character.
The city boasts a lot of nostalgic Americana. The city’s emblematic company is the Faribault wool spinning mill, founded in 1865 then relaunched a decade ago and transformed into a modern and flourishing company. The Tilt-A-Whirl amusement park ride was invented here in 1926 and is still made and repaired here, and the city sets up two Tilt-A-Whirl cars on the downtown Strip in the summer for rides. Pictures.
But there’s perhaps no better metaphor for the embrace of the new amid the old than in the loft-style apartments that have sprung up on the upper floors of downtown storefronts. The city has more than two dozen loft-style apartments in its historic district, with eight more currently under construction. The tenants gobbled them up.
The diversity of entertainment options has satisfied young professionals who want the loft lifestyle but outside of the Twin Cities. The Paradise Center for the Arts offers theater and live music. Downtown businesses include a distillery and cocktail bar, a Crooked Pint Ale House, a slew of dining options from Mexican to steakhouses, and a dozen African businesses from Faribault’s growing Somali community. . In 2019, more than 14% of Faribault residents were born outside the United States.
The future may be even brighter, with a new $5 million park slated to open in a few years that will provide outdoor gathering space downtown.
“You can’t replicate that feeling,” said Kelly Nygaard, Main Street Coordinator and Chamber Tourism Director. “You arrive downtown, it’s so much more than you ever imagined just by passing.”