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How Do We Fix Aberdeen’s Downtown?

Bryan Horwath offers an article on Aberdeen’s at least stagnant if not declining downtown. The discussion there is part brainstorming, part wheel-spinning. Downtown building owner Bart Walker says downtown has “hit a wall,” tells the city “to be more proactive,” alleges “redundancy’ between the Aberdeen Downtown Association and other groups, and says the downtown association isn’t doing “what it should be doing.” Walker says downtown needs “good leadership,” but then the paper apparently runs out of ink that would tell us exactly what magic recipe that leadership would follow to make downtown Aberdeen blossom.

Permit me to offer some suggestions:

  1. In Horwath’s report, Aberdeen Downtown Association exec Heidi Appel says a lot of people tell her downtown needs an Applebee’s or some other franchise restaurant. That lot of people need some re-education. People don’t come to downtown to eat at the same restaurant they can eat at out on soulless big-box fringe of every major town. They come downtown for unique experiences, like Aberdeen’s Flame and Red Rooster. Besides, franchises like Applebee’s won’t come downtown. Their blinders take them to the edge of town where they can build big parking lots. They have their place; it’s not downtown.
  2. Aberdeen has successfully maintained its Civic Arena and converted the old Central High School into the bustling Aberdeen Recreation and Cultural Center, along with some lovely green space. That busy spot is three blocks east of Main Street. Unfortunately, we have a line of city and federal buildings between the Civic Arena and ARCC and the commercial activity of Main Street. Nonetheless, downtown development should look for ways to connect the two areas, to help residents and visitors to conceptualize those two areas as one, and to get more synergy between events at the Arena and ARCC and opportunities for shopping and dining just a couple blocks away.
  3. Keep capitalizing on those government buildings and other offices and their workforces. A lot of professionals are working downtown. They have money to spend on coffee, lunch, and lots of little things they may need to pick on the way home from work. Stores around the federal building, the Wells Fargo complex, and the courthouse can look for ways to save those workers an extra trip, to invite them to walk a block on a lunch break errand instead of driving down to the mayhem of Sixth Avenue.
  4. Speaking of green space, Main Street could use some. We can probably sacrifice a building or two to open up the architecture, and create an outdoor third place.
  5. Forget venture capitalists. Downtown is not a place for investors who think the point of buying a property is to sell it for a huge profit in seven years. Downtown is a place for people who think place matters. Downtown is where you build something to last, something that will enhance the community in much more than profit and sales tax dollars. Downtown is where you create institutions that define your community at home and across the state. Downtown is for dreamers… and dreamers are useful, because they make things that aren’t just lines in someone’s ledger.

Notice that none of those ideas involve handouts from government. Downtown may well be worth continuing investment from the city—after all, downtown is primarily about retail, and the majority of the city budget comes from sales tax on retail activity. Build a unique downtown (like Fargo’s, about which I hear good things), and more people will make the trip to Aberdeen and spend more money. But if the city is going to offer tax incentives or other assistance to downtown developers, it should look closely at the above criteria and make sure public assistance goes to developers with the right downtown attitude.


  1. David Newquist 2015-04-12 11:41

    As your later post illustrates, people hold a religious but incoherent reverence for business even if business is incompetently run and irrelevant to the needs of the people in supplying goods and services. Community leaders have been fretting about downtown Aberdeen The during the 35 years I have lived here, but they never address the quality of businesses. The focus on the downtown misdirects attention away from that basic issue. The mall is in bankruptcy, it lost its restaurant, its anchor stores but one. J. C. Penny is closing. When it was downtown, its busiest departments were its men’s work and sports clothes and its children’s clothes. When it moved to the mall, it became a boutique-style store and reduced the size of those departments. Many folks still patronized the store, but at places such as its Fargo store, where it featured a huge jeans and sportswear and workwear department as well as a large children’s clothes department. The point is that people go shopping where they are offered choices and good values. Aberdeen was once a regional retail center. But now even the people who live in Aberdeen do their major shopping in Sioux Falls, Fargo, the Twin Cities, or on the Internet. Businesses are so caught up in MBA schemes about marketing schemes and cost-accounting devices that they no longer grasp the idea that successful businesses are based upon finding ways to serve customers, not brow-beat them into spending money locally to demonstrate some hometown loyalty. Or constantly whine about taxes and regulation and the competition from the big boxes. Build a good business which serves the people and they will come. Otherwise they go. And in a state which boasts the lowest wages in the nation, it should come as no surprise that people are careful about where they spend their limited dollars and go where they get the most choices and best values.

    If our local promotion sheet actually reported on how many businesses have closed over recent years, it might suggest a clue as to why the downtown is so bleak, the mall is so dark, and dollars spent in town are diminishing. People like to be respected as customers, not treated like dupes. Or serfs who are required to give their tithes to Lord Business.

  2. Les 2015-04-12 14:42

    Look to RC.

  3. John 2015-04-12 15:14

    Spot-on analyses. For decades Aberdeen, et al., smugly “grew” from the castoffs of farm and small town consolidations. They mistook rural flight for real growth. They mistook the accident of being there with the demand for providing quality business and service. Since they did little different to distinguish themselves they now find their city the next level of rural castoff as folks shop at the Fargos, FSDs, and MSPs. They are reaping what they sowed. If the local B-school is worth anything it should champion turning this around; if it fails, close it.

  4. grudznick 2015-04-12 16:53

    Rapid City is a booming mesa of business.

  5. scott 2015-04-12 19:29

    not a fan of aberdeen’s one way main street either. but for some old school steak house food, the flame is good.

  6. MJL 2015-04-12 20:47

    You could always build a sculpture walk. I hear that Watertown is about to do that. One thing as a person that comes to Aberdeen only for school events, is that some coordination when hosting state events would be nice. The hotel space is always incredibly tight and hotels are very expensive because there are about 8 other events going on. I am to the point of encouraging the state to look at some place else than Aberdeen for things like State debate, One-Act, and interp.

  7. Les 2015-04-12 21:31

    Good idea, mjl. Why not make the hotels free and the sculpture walk a paid admission to buy concessions for the interp kids.

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-13 06:02

    Good point, David. The closing of JC Penney and the bankruptcy of the mall is as indicative of retail failure here as the struggle to revitalize downtown. We can come up with a lot of marketing plans, but none of them will work if businesspeople don’t analyze the market and meet consumer needs. Government can’t do that for business.

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-13 06:09

    John, that’s a good point about our regional market. I’d be curious to see how much “rural flight” from the surrounding counties stays in Aberdeen and how much bounces on from Aberdeen to a bigger town.

    John also mentions “the accident of being there,” which gets me thinking about Aberdeen’s general customer base. It seems we benefit from being the nearest shopping area for folks in a zone defined roughly by Redfield, Mobridge, Edgely ND, and Sisseton. They come not because Aberdeen is unique or awesome because it’s here. As rural areas empty out, we lose more of our natural customer base. How do we replace that rural base with new visitors who will come here not by necessity but by choice?

  10. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-13 06:13

    Forget free hotels, Les, just build a couple more… and build one downtown, within walking distance of events at the Civic Arena and the community theater!

    The sculpture walk suggested in Horwath’s article seems superficial. Is there some racket for quick bronze mockups for street corners? I like public art and beautification projects, but I don’t see a sculpture walk a a priority for turning around market forces.

  11. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-13 06:15

    MJL mentions tight hotel space, which is interesting, since it seems to be the tourist analogue to our tight housing space. Both seem counterintuitive: how can we be struggling to sell enough stuff to keep retail open when there are apparently more visitors than our hotels can handle and more residents than the housing market can affordably accommodate?

    Hmmm… maybe the housing market is sucking up so many dollars that folks don’t have as much left to spend on retail?

  12. Chris Francis 2015-04-13 09:45

    Sculpturewalks, as pursued in South Dakota (and many other locales) are not often a heathly nor necessarily beneficial exercise for the artists themselves. Claims of prospective sales are more often heavily exaggerated and to be honest, such efforts are honestly abusive and disrespectful towards professional artists, and undermines their wellbeing. Most sculpturewalk artists see little to no financial assistance, and are lured by the ‘our bustling business climate’ talk and falsely believing it must be better there, so I’ll supply my work for free and gain sales. Focusing on local artist efforts and looking to serve and build the local artist should be the first and foremost consideration to any public art effort, while respecting their work and vision, and of course, actually fairly paying the artist for their art and time. There’s a much larger conversation here, make another blog post and I’ll gladly continue. (That all being said, public art is a great asset for any community, just do it right, work with your local working artists, and fairly pay for the darn art)

  13. jim 2015-04-13 14:02

    The Accident of Being Here is genius..the autobiography of ole Aberdak. Come on..JC Penney is going out of business everywhere. Econo Foods..Radio Shack too. Malls going dark? Not Aberdeen’s fault. The reason is called WalMart ..Aberdeen knows this..they voted on it. They did not get to vote on Amazon. Downtown Aberdeen never was special. It’s ugly. It’s not communal, has no center square or meeting space. The city county building is atrocious, out of the way and looks like it’s in the middle of a abandoned parking lot. Aberdeen is what it is. You don’t hide it. You also are not sure if you’re a small city or a big town. An oversized Bowdle or a really distant dark, barren, cold and souless suburb of the Twin Cities. What Aberdeen needs is an identity. If not for Northern State Aberdeen would be called Hurion. So what exactly is “Aberdeen”? Hint: Can I get a kolache or kuchen on main street? Can I eat pheasant on main street? Is there anything German on main street? Can I even still TAKE A MAIN? You don’t need an Applebees or Forever need a Cabelas and German restaurant that serves meat, potatoes, kuchen and Lawrence Welk! And you all need to take a main.

  14. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-04-14 17:28

    I’m not particularly wise about downtown revitalization, but I’ve seen places that have been successful. Has Aberdeen sent anyone to Rapid City or Fargo or SF or Hill City to meet with that town’s people who’ve been successful?

    Send them to Northfield, MN. It’s easy to take one look down Northfield’s visitor drag and fall in love. Locals hang out there too because it’s cozy, warm and friendly. (Northfield is about 40 miles south of the metro, and just a couple miles east.)

    Or try Lindstrőm, MN. (Northeast of the metro about 25 miles) I made a point to include the umlaut because it’s not on their new city/population highway sign and they are up in arms! Lindstrőm’s little water tower is shaped like an old fashioned tin coffee pot with spout and handle, including rosemale flowers.

    Aberdeen needs to send representatives to successful small towns and emulate them. It will be worth the money and time.

  15. Wade Brandis 2015-04-15 11:44

    One rather nice downtown area I have been to is in Brookings. Their downtown was redone not long ago with new concrete pavement and old-fashioned style street lights. There seemed to be quite a lot of businesses there too.

    As for national chain restaurants, Brookings managed to get a Subway downtown. Subway is no Applebee’s, and it’s more of a franchise opportunity. In some cases, national chains can operate in downtown areas but the food will be exactly the same as the Subway in Walmart, or any Subway location. I like Subway, but as we have one in Winner, I would rather go to Nick’s Hamburger Shop.

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-15 13:13

    I am of the impression that Subway may approach location location differently from Applebee’s. I would think Subway would like downtown, because they are serving up quick lunch food, perfect for lots of workers on foot on noon break. Applebee’s aims at a different time and different market.

    And a Subway shouldn’t put a place like Nick’s out of business.

    Brookings has a model downtown. If they haven’t already, Aberdeen’s downtown boosters should go on a field trip and spend a good day walking around downtown Brookings, going to shops, having lunch, checking out the Children’s Museum (another key to downtown development: tourist/recreation destinations!). Get the vibe, see what people are doing, then see what lessons they can bring back to Aberdeen.

  17. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-04-15 17:14

    I want to repeat my urging for Aberdeen to go a little farther afield than their SD neighbors. Go east toward Midwestern states. Explore MN, WI and IL. There are so many creative little towns with exciting imaginations. Really fun things are happening on small budgets.

  18. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-04-15 17:20

    Send 2 women on a 5 day road trip. (They won’t be as risk averse as men and they’ll require just one room for the night.) They’ll plan an itinerary, but take every side trip suggested until time is up.

    Oh, Iowa’s Mississippi River towns are a great option too. For starters they’re 50 years older than the rest of the state. They are a different critter from Iowa farm country. Find out how Iowa promotes the covered bridges. Do stuff!

  19. Les 2015-04-15 17:23

    Good idea, Deb. Yes, Al Nov. Head east young man. Greater than all this await you.

  20. grudznick 2015-04-15 17:45

    More breakfast joints. Some benches and things on the sidewalks. There are some easy fixes for this downtown in Aberdeen that probably is just fine as it is, anyway. Nobody has proven that this Mr. Horwath is right about Aberdeen’s downtown. It might be just fine.

  21. mike from iowa 2015-04-15 18:22

    What’s wrong with watching the service station guy rotate tires? In Sutherland,iowa if you are female,get a job at the bank or convenience store and a marriage proposal from me-mfi-you’ve had about all this small town has to offer.

    Actually,having the Prairie Heritage Center built east of town on the valley of my beloved Little Sioux River,amongst glacial byway was a stroke of genius. Check it out on the internet.

    Lots of restored and untilled prairie and some bufflers cavorting in an enclosure.

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