Recently, I had the opportunity to come to Crookston to talk to the newly formed Downtown Crookston Development Task Group. I’d like to first extend a heartfelt thank you to Amanda Lien and the Crookston Chamber and Visitors Bureau for the invitation.

    Recently, I had the opportunity to come to Crookston to talk to the newly formed Downtown Crookston Development Task Group.  I’d like to first extend a heartfelt thank you to Amanda Lien and the Crookston Chamber and Visitors Bureau for the invitation.  

    I’m always excited when I get the opportunity to talk about the importance of downtowns, and I always leave energized to continue to advocate for a strong downtown in my hometown of Grand Forks.  My time in Crookston was no exception.  Your community has a wonderful opportunity to build upon a foundation of an already charming and beautiful historic downtown, and I hope you continue to build momentum.

    The story of downtowns in the United States is a long and interesting one.  In communities like Crookston and Grand Forks, downtowns were built as the hub of the city; where people came to do everything.  People would come downtown to do their banking, do their shopping, drop off their mail, and take in a show.  The streets were filled with people, not cars, and chance encounters with your neighbors on the streets and sidewalks were frequent and meaningful.  Buildings were built brick by brick, and were built to last for well over a century.  These buildings are the visual representation of the community's heritage and a physical expression of the community's history.

    With the advent of the automobile, downtowns, and communities in general, began to change.  People were forced off of the streets, buildings were knocked down to build parking lots, development spread, and communities’ boundaries were expanded out of necessity.  Unfortunately, this trend continues today in many communities across the country. However, another trend has emerged in the last few years; a return to the traditional yet dynamic, walkable, vibrant downtown.  As the millennial generation has begun to show us what they want, vibrant downtowns have moved their way to the top of that list.  As these downtowns have moved to the top of the list, and the general mindset of economic development has changed, an emergence of focus on small business, diverse housing, alternative transportation, vibrant public spaces, and community engagement has increased.  These areas of focus have helped turned America’s downtowns into a focal point for talent retention and attraction, for efficient use of taxpayer dollars, and for drivers of happiness and sense of community belonging.  

   So, where does downtown Crookston fall into these trends?  Across the country, small towns are realizing that vibrant downtowns are not just something that can work in cities like Minneapolis, Denver, or Portland.  Communities the size of Crookston have begun to take the necessary steps to return their downtowns to prominence.  Crookston has the opportunity to not just follow the trends, but to be a regional leader in setting trends.  You have pieces in place that other communities of your size would love to have – a university, a body of water attached to your downtown, and a unique and growing sector of locally owned businesses.   These pieces are the things that you can and should build upon.

    In downtown development, it’s tempting to swing for the fences and try to hit a homerun.  In other words, it’s tempting to try to build that one big project that will be the game changer, whether it is a large housing development, a large commercial office building, or a host of other things.  These projects should always be considered.  However, more times than not, successful downtown development happens when a community decides to try to hit a series of singles.  Small, tangible projects that the community can embrace and take ownership of are the things that lead to continued success.  One advantage that smaller communities have is that they can make small investments that have a big impact.  Get local artists involved.  Take things that normally wouldn’t be desirable and make them places to congregate.  Uniquely paint manhole covers, dumpsters, and utility boxes. Hold mini festivals and concerts in parking lots.  Have dinner parties hosted by local restaurants in alleyways.  Encourage the university to occasionally hold classes in underutilized spaces throughout downtown.  Do things that become signature to Crookston, and do them with fervor and pride. Starting with small projects begins to build momentum and attract both visitors and residents alike, and that momentum leads to a greater chance of hitting that homerun when the perfect pitch is presented.

    Downtown is the community’s living room.  It’s an area that you should all take pride in, and that you should visit frequently.  When I visited, I found that there were a number of people that were ready to take Downtown Crookston to the next level.  That is important, but, for downtown to be successful for years to come, the community as a whole needs to buy in and support the development.  Downtown Crookston has an opportunity to be a leader on this front, and the time to start is today.
    
    Holth is co-owner of The Toasted Frog restaurants in Grand Forks, Fargo and Bismarck.