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Editor’s Note: Joni Hubred, who has taken over the reigns as news editor of the Steele County Times, begins a column this week, “Heart of Steele.”
My first glimpse of downtown Owatonna happened more than 15 years ago, when my adult daughter moved into an apartment on one of the city’s lovely, tree-lined streets.
Except for a jaw-dropping walk into the Wells Fargo Bank, very little about the central business district stood out to me. I mention this because around that same time, the city I called home was deep into planning for a downtown streetscape.
A devastating recession delayed Farmington, Michigan’s long-awaited streetscape project. The final phase began this month–nearly 14 years after completion of the first phase. During that time, the wider sidewalks, benches, plantings, old fashioned streetlamps, a new city park, and traffic calming bump-outs have paid huge dividends.
It took time, but empty storefronts filled with unique, mom & pop shops. Fresh Thyme Farmers Market grabbed a big hunk of an old strip mall, driving the owner to improve the rest of it. A large investment firm renovated–and then moved 60 employees into–a historic bank building held for years by a neglectful property owner.
More importantly, the city park and pavilion have become a thriving, four-season entertainment venue, hosting one of the state’s most successful farmers markets, a weekly swing-dance party (weather permitting), and a popular ice skating rink.
The Farmington streetscape was not an easy sell. People worried about the loss of parking spaces, the dangers of angled parking, the cost of maintaining all those flower beds and trees and bushes. More than a few accidents have damaged balustrades and taken out plantings.
None of that seems important on a warm summer evening when the driving beat of an Eagles tribute band fills the park and drifts through downtown restaurant patios. Or on a crisp, New Year’s Eve when costumed kids and adults take turns around the ice rink before a countdown and midnight ball drop.
Concrete and metal and asphalt didn’t create those experiences. It took volunteers with the courage to share new ideas and the energy to make them real. And city officials who supported the vision. And residents and visitors who show up again and again.
Once the dust settles, the downtown Owatonna streetscape will create an opportunity. What happens next in the heart of our city… well, that’s up to you.

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