Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Part I: Discovering Albert Lea’s strongest asset, in my opinion October 27, 2015

EXITING INTERSTATE 35 in southeastern Minnesota into Albert Lea, I saw the usual hotels, fast food places, a Big Box retailer and gas stations that could have made this Anywhere, USA. Nothing special. Just another place to fill up with food or gas, turn around and continue onto a destination.

But Albert Lea was my destination on a recent day trip to explore this city of some 18,000.

I knew little of this community, only that it hosts the annual Big Island Rendezvous and Eddie Cochran Days and is home to a chemical dependency treatment center.

 

Historic buildings in Albert Lea, 89 interchange to furniture store

 

It’s strongest asset, as I was about to discover, lies in the heart of downtown. Albert Lea boasts a Commercial Historic District with some incredible architecture. You would never know that, though, driving into town from the first exit on the north. You would never know that by skimming the tourism website or reading the Experience Albert Lea brochure (which mentions the district but features no photos of old buildings).

 

Historic buildings in Albert Lea, 57 tops of buildings

 

An informational kiosk in the downtown shares info about historic buildings.

A kiosk in the downtown shares info about historic buildings.

 

Historic buildings in Albert Lea, 56 furniture store

 

I discovered this treasure of historic buildings simply by driving into the downtown. One hundred and fifteen buildings comprise the Albert Lea Commercial Historic District, according to information I later found on the Minnesota Historical Society website. Wow.

Architectural details on the bank.

Architectural details on the former Albert Lea State Bank building.

This stunning old bank building, if all goes as hoped, will provide housing and serve as an art center.

The former bank building, one of the most impressive buildings downtown.

Sculpted lady above the bank building entry.

Sculpted lady above the bank building entry.

If you appreciate aged buildings that are architecturally stunning, then you must tour Albert Lea. Especially impressive is the massive former Albert Lea State Bank building anchoring a corner of South Broadway. Built in 1922 for $200,000, the structure features a marble facade and is decorated with cream hued terra cotta art. The City of Albert Lea invested about $2 million in its exterior restoration in 2007. Millions more, perhaps three times as much, are needed for additional interior (electrical, plumbing, heating/cooling, etc.) improvements.

Plans are to house the Art Center in the historic bank.

Plans are to house the Art Center in the historic bank.

The Art Center is currently in a building across the street from the bank.

The Art Center is currently in a building across the street from the bank.

A sign above the door labels the old bank as the future home of the Albert Lea Art Center. Online research also reveals that a Kansas developer plans to convert the upper floors into income-limited apartments.  However, that was contingent on securing housing tax credits, which the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency recently failed to award to the proposed project. Albert Lea officials and the developer must now decide whether to reapply for the tax credits (for the third time) or pursue other options.

A local whom I met downtown (prior to the MHFA decision) said I could probably buy the building for $10. Through November, the first floor of the old bank houses a Des Moines based West End Architectural Salvage pop-up shop, next open from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. October 30 – November 1.

So much potential exists in Albert Lea's downtown given the volume of historic buildings.

So much potential exists in Albert Lea’s downtown given the volume of historic buildings.

Many empty storefronts occupy downtown Albert Lea. I don’t know why this surprises me. But it does. In recent years, I’ve visited all too many mid-sized Minnesota cities expecting to find bustling downtowns. Instead, I find many gaps between businesses.

A view of a side street in the downtown.

A view of a side street in the downtown.

In all fairness to Albert Lea, plenty of businesses still exist. It’s just that to a first-time visitor, multiple vacant storefronts present an impression of a struggling downtown. Correct assessment or not, visual impressions count.

Even though a sign flashed open in this antique shop, we could not figure out a way to gain entry to the business around newly-poured sidewalks.

Even though a sign flashed open in this antique shop, I could not figure out a way to gain entry to the business around newly-poured sidewalks on the day I was in town.

And, in all fairness to Albert Lea, I visited on a particularly blustery day, less than ideal conditions for fully exploring this community. The city lies between two lakes. But the weather was too blasted cold, grey and windy to even consider much time outdoors. As it was, I struggled to hold my camera steady against the wind for downtown photos. Road and sidewalk construction created additional obstacles.

 

Historic buildings in Albert Lea, 71 jeweler building

 

Will I return to Albert Lea? Perhaps.

Another former bank building in the downtown.

Another former bank building in the downtown.

I see the potential in this community for a destination downtown. That requires a strong mission/vision, money and a marketing plan that fully embraces and promotes Albert Lea’s Commercial Historic District as its greatest asset.

Tomorrow I'll take you inside the second building from the left in this image.

Tomorrow I’ll take you inside the third building from the corner in this image.

FYI: Return tomorrow to read the second part in this series from Albert Lea. I will take you inside a business that’s truly one-of-a-kind.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling