EPA grant could prepare quarries, other parcels for redevelopment

Mark Fischenich
The Free Press, Mankato, MN
Date: January 21, 2017

MANKATO — From the former quarries along the Minnesota River, through downtown Mankato and along the Sibley Parkway, up to 10 potentially contaminated sites could find an easier path to redevelopment under a federal grant being sought by the city.

The application for an Environmental Protection Agency grant, if successful, would provide up to $300,000 to investigate for pollution on so-called brownfields — mostly in the oldest portion of Mankato. Without that sort of investigation, developers tend to shy away from purchasing and building on properties that have a history of industrial uses or possible chemical contaminants.

“We’ve found that having those answers upfront can really speed up the redevelopment process,” said Kristin Prososki, economic development specialist for the city of Mankato.

Residents don’t need to look far for examples. The Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota, the Performing Arts Center attached to the civic center, the Tailwind office and commercial development on South Front Street, and the small commercial building that replaced an abandoned convenience store across from The Y — all happened after grant funds investigated the potential environmental pitfalls on the sites.

Developer Kyle Smith of the Tailwind Group was involved in projects on both ends of the scale. Tailwind remodeled and slightly expanded a long-vacant Super Shop convenience store into a small three-tenant commercial building when grant funds showed that the site wasn’t contaminated with leaking petroleum products. And Tailwind made one of the biggest private investments in downtown Mankato in decades with the three-building South Front Street project after clean-up funds subsidized the cost of removing tons of contaminated earth.

“Without some of those matching funds, the deals just don’t get done,” Smith said. “Because the economics just don’t work.”

Previous projects relied on state funding, mainly through the Department of Employment and Economic Development and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The latest application is for federal funds through the EPA’s brownfields assessment grants program.

Mankato made an application a year ago for a piece of the $55 million in funding available nationwide but wasn’t one of the 131 communities selected. The agency provided feedback on Mankato’s unsuccessful application, including suggestions that the city provide more specifics about possible redevelopment sites, and Prososki is more optimistic about the city’s chances this year.

The new application specifically mentions the Coughlan quarries — one just east of Riverfront Park and another off of Third Avenue just south of Highway 14 — which have an assessed value of $1.1 million.

The Coughlan family last year announced it was interested in offering the depleted quarries for redevelopment, likely including public uses such as parkland. The potential of the 86 acres of quarry land — complete with rock cliffs up to 60 feet high and riverside landscapes in the heart of the city — sparked the imagination of area residents, who have suggested everything from a new county fairgrounds to a baseball park to a high-tech industrial park.

Dreaming can turn into planning more easily if it’s determined that the land is free of major contaminants. The EPA funds could finance soil borings and other testing, along with creation of a plan to address any pollutants found, Prososki said.

“There can still be surprises (during the redevelopment process), but it minimizes them,” she said of the assessments.

The Coughlans’ willingness to redevelop the land is a critical component for the brownfields assessment grants.

“It’s done on a voluntary basis when a property owner is on board,” Prososki said.

If the grant dollars are awarded, any other willing landowner could also participate. Prososki estimates the grant could fund Phase One assessments for as many as 10 properties, which would involve a thorough search of the historic uses of the land to identify past businesses that may have utilized toxic chemicals.

If the Phase One assessment suggests potential pollutants, the grant funds could finance roughly six Phase Two assessments involving soil borings and other testing. The funds can also be used for assessments on older buildings for items of concern such as lead-based paint and older light fixtures that could contain mercury or PCBs.

Even a full $300,000 grant won’t address all of the potential sites in the older parts of Mankato, but it would make a substantial dent in them — particularly considering the number of properties already tackled in the past five years.

“It takes years to get these sites fully redeveloped, decades even,” Prososki said. “But it would be a really great start.”

Solid information about the environmental problems — or lack thereof — can definitely make a difference in the pace of redevelopment. The tax-forfeited Super Shop convenience store sat vacant for years, even though buyers were interested in the parcel at the heavily traveled intersection of Riverfront Drive and Highway 169/60 across from The Y.

When it first went up for auction, no one bid.

“The three parties that were interested were concerned about the tanks,” Prososki said of the buried fuel tanks.

Then came the government-funded testing, a clean bill of environmental health and the purchase and redevelopment by Tailwind. The building is now home to real estate, financial advising and weight-loss businesses.

The Front Street development by the same firm resulted in more than $20 million in private investment downtown but only after the environmental problems with the site were identified and the subsidized clean-up occurred. The site provided almost a complete checklist of some of the worst possible previous uses — railroad siding, dry cleaners, foundry, underground storage tanks … .

And the investigation found significant pollutants in significant quantities. Immense amounts of soil were hauled from the site before construction could begin.

“That’s got to be one of the largest clean-ups Mankato has done,” Smith said.

The Tailwind Project, which brought hundreds of jobs downtown and contributed to the wider revitalization of South Front Street, wouldn’t have happened if the public assistance with the environmental costs hadn’t been available, Smith said.

Developers recognize that greenfield sites — farm land on the edge of town — offer a much less complicated place to construct a new building. But it’s good public policy for the city, state and federal governments to promote reuse of brownfields in the city core where streets, utilities and other services are already in place, Prososki said.

And the revitalization of the city core has brought momentum that makes the private sector even more interested in investing downtown.

“It’s really made it an attractive place where businesses want to locate,” she said.

Smith agrees: “Right now, it appears to be pretty trendy.”

So if the tenants want to be downtown, or in Old Town, or in a former quarry, or along the Sibley Parkway — which is undergoing a transformation from industrial to office/residential — developers are going to be more willing to tackle the complexities of brownfield redevelopment.

“As big as the challenges might be, there’s a bigger opportunity,” Smith said.

The fate of the EPA grant application is expected to be known sometime in May. One major brownfield redevelopment that won’t be benefiting from the grant is the former city public works department site just north of Cub Foods West along the Sibley Parkway.

The City Council is eager to redevelop that four-acre property and didn’t want to await the results of the EPA grant process. Instead, the city has agreed to finance the environmental assessment with hopes of seeking private redevelopment proposals later this year.

Julee’s Jewelry opening in Mankato

Tim Krohn
The Free Press, Mankato, MN
Date: January 16, 2017

MANKATO — Julee’s Jewelry, a longtime St. Peter jeweler known for her custom designs, is opening a shop in the new Tailwind building in downtown Mankato, joining the recently opened Primp Boutique.

“I’ve had people asking me to open in Mankato for a few years,” said owner Julee Johnson. The Tailwind Group asked her to check out their new building on South Front Street. She drove to the building and parked. “I was looking at the building and a couple crossed the street right in front of me holding hands and I though, maybe that’s a sign,” said Johnson, who sells plenty of engagement and wedding rings.

“There’s a lot of energy downtown and when I knew Primp was for sure opening I thought we’d be a good compliment.”

Johnson’s space will be a little larger than the boutique and there will be one more retail space available in the building after she moves in. She hopes to be open by the end of the month.

Johnson started her business in downtown St. Peter in a former jewelry store in 1999. The store had been around for more than 40 years and the business was being liquidated after the owner’s death. Johnson ended up buying the inventory and opening Julee’s Jewelry in the same building.

In 2013 she moved a block north to the historic Nicollet Hotel building. “It’s a beautiful building with big wood columns and great architecture,” she said of her new space in St. Peter.

Johnson travels to Antwerp, Belgium and to New York to buy gems. “I sell gems to customers and we design the jewelry together. I do a lot of custom designs,” Johnson said. She uses a CAD-type system to work with customers on designs or sometimes hand sketches designs that she will make.

“I’m a little more techie than a lot of jewelers. It’s the engineering part of me.”

She said the industry has changed significantly since she started. “The margins have dropped drastically because of the internet. But you never know what you’re getting on the internet, the sparkle, the quality.”

Johnson recently qualified to become a “Preferred Jeweler.” She said just one other jeweler in the state, in Rochester, has the designation. People who buy jewelry from preferred jewelers can bring it to any preferred jeweler in the country for free repairs.

Former Old Country Buffet to be redeveloped

Tim Krohn
The Free Press, Mankato, MN
Date: October 31, 2016

MANKATO — The former Old Country Buffet property will be expanded and redeveloped for at least three businesses while a former restaurant downtown will get a new tenant and the River Hills Pet Care Hospital has plans to move to a new location with a lot more room.

And in downtown Mankato, an experiment called Envision Lab has closed.

Tailwind Group in partnership with Lidstrom Commercial Realtors is redeveloping the OCB site, which sits on prime property directly across Adams Street from the main entry to River Hills Mall.

“Location, location, location is what I liked about it,” Kyle Smith, of Tailwind, said of the property. Tailwind and Lidstrom have owned the property for about two years and previously leased it to OCB.

He said their success in leasing the new space relatively quickly this summer confirmed to him the site is a good one. Smith said they have three tenants for the spaces but they do not yet want to disclose names.

The project will be finished in the spring or early summer of 2017.

Smith said two of the tenants are new to the area.

Tailwind and Lidstrom plan to add 3,100 square feet to the building, completely renovate the interior and exterior and divide it into three and possibly four commercial spaces. The current building is 10,000 square feet.

Drawings for the plan, which is being reviewed by the city, show the spaces as planned will be about 2,800 square feet, 4,500 square feet and 5,500 square feet. The drawing shows two outdoor patio areas, suggesting food-related businesses in at least some of the space.

They will also reconfigure the parking lot adding 10 stalls for a total of 129.

OCB was closed abruptly in June after the chain shuttered 92 locations, part of an ongoing downsizing of the chain.

Pet hospital

River Hills Pet Care Hospital has submitted plans to the city for construction of a new building. The business has long operated out of space in Pet Expo.

The new 4,700 square-foot building would be across the street from the west side of Home Depot and between Community Bank and Sherwin Williams, according to plans submitted to the city’s Site Plan Review Committee.

River Hills Pet Care Hospital opened in 1995 and has five veterinarians. They are a full service veterinary clinic specializing in preventive care, laser surgery and dentistry. In addition to dogs and cats, they care for small mammals, reptiles and birds.

Burrito Express

The former Daisy’s Soul Food at 410 South Front St. in downtown Mankato will become a Burrito Express.

The building is owned by Shawn Clow and the restaurant will be operated by Oscar Castro.

Castro had operated the Burrito Wings restaurant near the Minnesota State University campus, which he opened in 2014, until selling it this summer.

Castro also owns the Patron Mexican Bar & Grill in Chaska.

Daisy’s Soul Food opened in January 2014 and closed in July of that year.

End to Envision

In 2015 Katie Boone opened Envision Lab in part of a building on the corner of Broad and Main streets with the idea of offering office co-space that could be rented at relatively low costs for the short term.

The lab started with the help of a $20,000 grant from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, which believed a space for start-up businesses, telecommuters and entrepreneurs was needed.

Boone announced last week that Envision Lab has closed, saying they couldn’t afford the space.

Downtown businesses commission bull sculpture

The Free Press, Mankato, MN
Date: Friday, April 15, 2016

MANKATO — Downtown businesses have taken the bull by the horns to put a piece of permanent art in their neighborhood.

The sculpture “Tractor Bull” will be installed on the 500 block of South Front Street this month.

Created by artist Chris Powell of Colorado, the piece is a bronze and aluminum sculpture commissioned through the CityArt program by a group of five businesses in Profinium Place: Tailwind Group, Profinium Bank, Kato Insurance, Turning Point Management, and Abdo, Eick and Meyers.

This is the first piece commissioned through CityArt.

The businesses were interested in a bull sculpture to celebrate the Minnesota State University Maverick mascot and help create a new connection between the university and downtown.

Powell also wanted to incorporate Mankato’s strong agricultural industry and influence. “Tractor Bull” is “a classical bull sculpture made in the style of an early tractor with tractor elements such as actual gears and grills incorporated into its anatomy,” Powell said in a statement.

Supporters of the CityArt Walking Sculpture Tour, the businesses were inspired to make a permanent contribution to the community’s public art collection, according to a City Center Partnership news release. The sculpture will be placed near Tailwind Group’s Block at 518 S. Front St.

Another of Powell’s works, “Resurgence,” is in front of the Public Safety Center, 710 S. Front St.

The public is invited to the sculpture’s dedication 3 p.m. Friday, April 29.

CityArt, an affiliate of Greater Mankato Growth, is a joint program of the City Center Partnership and Twin Rivers Council for the Arts dedicated to bringing public art to the community. CityArt initiatives include the Walking Sculpture Tour, Art on the Go, the proposed Mankato Flood Wall Mural and the City Center Public Art Tour.

Smith, Tailwind remade downtown Mankato in 2015

Dan Linehan
The Free Press, Mankato, MN
Date: Sunday, March 27, 2016

MANKATO — No single public space in Mankato was as transformed in 2015 as the 500 block of Front Street and Riverfront Drive.

The three projects that have reshaped this square block of downtown started the year as shells and ended it as fully formed buildings.

The two office towers, the five-story Ridley Tower and seven-story Profinium Place, brought close to 350 workers downtown, said Kyle Smith, director of development for Tailwind Group. The 20 apartments in the five-story buildings, called the Residences of 518, brought dozens more residents to live downtown.

The influx of new workers and residents means more customers for downtown businesses. Two new eateries — Polito’s Pizza and WYSIWYG, a juice bar — opened on this block this year. Stardoc Studios, which focuses on music, comedy and and other events, also remodeled.

A rising tide lifts all boats, Smith said.

After more than a year of construction, though, the dominant emotion in the downtown may be relief that the disruption is over.

“It really went very smoothly from start to finish,” Smith said. “We feel fortunate, too.”

Within two months, both office towers are expected to be fully occupied. The apartments have been leased up, too.

Though Rent MSU is Tailwind’s sister company, the apartments weren’t targeted at college students. Professional adults were always their target market, and that’s who has chosen to live there.

“It’s an interesting mix of young professionals,” he said.

The first floor of the apartment complex is the only open space. The original plan had the bar Red Sky locating there. A message left with one of the company’s owners wasn’t returned.

As Tailwind’s projects in this area finished up in 2015, other projects ramped up.

The largest of them is a student housing complex called The Quarters. It’s across the street from College Town, a gated student development Tailwind finished a few years ago.

The Quarters is slated to house about 490 students, only slightly more than College Town. But it’s on roughly half the acreage.

“We tried to take more of a vertical approach,” he said. The first level consists of flat, single-story units, while second-level units include two floors. A townhome on top of a flat, in other words.

As with college housing nationwide, amenities are key at The Quarters. Its clubhouse has a golf simulator and a Starbucks coffee lounge as well as 24-hour tanning and fitness facilities.

Today’s college students may have grown up with amenities, such as their own bathroom, and expect the same for college life. That’s a recent development, Smith said.

“The whole demand factor has changed in 10 years,” he said. “I never thought (there would be) golf simulators in student housing.”

Or so many bathrooms, for that matter.

“I didn’t have my own bathroom at home as a kid,” Smith said.

The Quarters is slated for July 1 completion.

Also in 2015, Tailwind won the bid to redevelop Mankato’s former fire station on Madison Avenue. As of September, it has become the home of Little Stars Early Learning Center.

“It was challenging, anytime you take on, I’ll just say this, a venture like that,” Smith said.

Tailwind also finished a new AT&T store along Madison Avenue. It’s among the first of the company’s latest, state-of-the-art store model, he said.

The company also finished the redevelopment of a long-abandoned gas station site on Riverfront Drive, across from the YMCA.

They’re working now on a project at Frandsen Bank & Trust on Madison Avenue that should have a similar look. The bank will scale down and be joined by two shops: a Caribou Coffee and Einstein Bros. Bagels.

Tailwind has heard some interest from one more long-awaited franchise — Dunkin’ Donuts — but the company is still looking for a franchisee, he said.

When it comes to 2016 projects, including about whether Tailwind has an eye on redeveloping the former post office, Smith spoke as if more were in the pipeline but decided to stay mum on the details.

He did seek to emphasize that, while he is often the public face of the company, Tailwind Group is comprised of three other partners, too: Reggie Reed, director of operations; Michael Sather, director of finance; and Landon Smith, director of marketing and leasing.

Shared spaces, shared resources for Mankato nonprofits

Jessica Bies
The Free Press, Mankato, MN
Date: Saturday, December 26, 2015

MANKATO — It’s a problem far too many nonprofits experience.
Limited space and limited resources gridlock their work. Overhead runs so high, little money is left over for programming or employee benefits.

Hand-me-down furniture and run-down buildings can lend an air of shabbiness to even the most respectable nonprofit. They seem to be “just getting by,” their employees exhausted from hauling totes around town from conference room to conference room because, of course, they don’t have one of their own.

“This is what we struggle with the most: finding the space to meet,” Mankato Area Foundation Director Nancy Zallek said. “So often we’re off site and we have to tote all our stuff with us.”

Luckily, for her organization and a handful of other Mankato nonprofits, that is no longer the case, she was happy to add.

After nearly 40 years of dreaming about a Mankato-based nonprofit center — where nonprofits, large and small, could share resources and ideas — the Mankato Area Foundation has opened Shared Spaces, a suite of downtown offices with an air of respectability few of its tenants thought they’d ever be able to afford.
Mankato Foundation more than doubles fund

MANKATO — It’s been a banner year for the Mankato Area Foundation, which not only opened a new nonprofit center, but granted nearly $400,000 toward local projects and programming.

Shared space, shared resources

“As nonprofits, we are always judged, in a sense, about how effectively we use our dollars,” Greater Mankato Diversity Council Executive Director Bukata Hayes said.

If a nonprofit spends too much money on rent, utilities or new furniture, they have less to put back into the community.

“In order for every bit we have to go toward improving people’s lives, overhead has to be very low,” Greater Mankato United Way President Barb Kaus said.

Which is why many area nonprofits find themselves operating out of cramped quarters, using outdated technology and shimming up their desks.

Until just recently, Greater Mankato United Way, Greater Mankato Diversity Council, Life-Work Planning Center, Mankato Pediatric Respite, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, Miracle League of North Mankato and YWCA of Mankato were among them.

Now, with the exception of United Way, they are operating out of Shared Spaces. Kaus said her team hopes to make the transition to the new building soon.

“We call them our partner-tenants,” Zallek said.

They aren’t tenants in the traditional sense of the word, however, and won’t pay rent. Instead the organizations will split the expense of keeping the nonprofit center open, jointly bearing the costs for electricity, heat and other utilities.

They’ll also share conference rooms, and in some instances, staff, further reducing costs. A commercial copier/printer, which few of the nonprofits could afford on their own, will be available for common use. There is also a shared kitchen and breakroom as well as ample storage space.

Furniture for the building was donated by the animal feed producer Ridley, which recently relocated to the Tailwind office towers. Other local businesses, such as Consolidated Communications and Schwickert’s Plumbing and Heating, made in-kind donations to Shared Spaces, helping renovate the building for the nonprofits’ needs.

A vision completed

The vision for Shared Spaces may date back nearly four decades, but it only took about a year and a half to make the nonprofit center a reality.
New nonprofit center coming to downtown Mankato

A first-of-its-kind in Minnesota center for nonprofits is being set up in downtown Mankato after local benefactors donated $750,000 to make the long-sought idea a reality.

Blethen, Gage and Krause Law Firm, which used to occupy 127 S. Second St., was preparing to move into the new Tailwind office towers last fall. One of the firm’s attorneys, also on the board of the Mankato Area Foundation, told Zallek the building was about to be vacated and may be available for purchase.

The goal had originally been to open a nonprofit center sometime within the next 10 years.

But Zallek and the foundation’s board decided “We can’t wait for sometime this decade,” she said. “We need to jump on it and see if we can make this happen.”
Mankato Area Foundation seeks city help for new nonprofit center

MANKATO — The Mankato City Council will be asked Monday night to forgive nearly $7,000 of a loan to a downtown law firm to facilitate the sale of the law offices to the Mankato Area Foundation…

Just a few months later, a group of Mankato benefactors had pledged $750,000 to buy the law firm’s building.

“We talked to 11 people and nine helped us purchase the building,” Zallek said.

Among the donors were the Glen A. Taylor Foundation, the Dotson Family Fund, Ogden and Jane Confer, Lyle and Kay Jacobson, Jeff and Cindy Thom, the Andreas Foundation, The Tailwind Group, the Fallenstein Family Fund and the Thin Film Technology Fund.

The building was remodeled over the summer — with another half million in donations — and opened this fall.

Now more open and airy, it is a friendly, welcoming space, designed to be a hub for nonprofit activity.

Collaboration is key

Though Shared Spaces is intended to lower costs for nonprofits, that’s not its only function.

The new office building is also meant to encourage collaboration between area nonprofits, whether the organizations be firmly established or just newly emerging.

Whereas before conversations between nonprofits like the YWCA and Greater Mankato Diversity Council had to take place over the phone, they can now take place in person.

Hayes, whose office is on Shared Spaces’ ground floor, likes to sit with his door open so he can chat with people on their way to the kitchen or conference room.

“Sometimes you just see each other in the hallway,” he said.

He also has a place to meet with people like Fardousa Jama, of the Somali Community Barwaaqo Organization, a relatively new Mankato nonprofit without permanent office space of its own.

The building’s conference rooms, as well as a room called the Mary Dotson Collaborative Center, are open to small nonprofits. They are welcome to use the building’s Wi-Fi, printer, copier and other resources, as well as consult with the building’s staff and executive directors.

Being able to talk to staff from other nonprofits is a huge plus of being at Shared Spaces, said Jean Keenan of Life-Work Planning Center. A program for women and displaced homemakers, Life-Work only has three staff members, she said, which makes it easy to get burnt out.

“There is no management team,” she said. “It’s just me and if I can’t solve a problem, can’t connect to the server, there’s no one to help me.”

Now all Keenan needs to do when she’s feeling overworked is walk across the hall to where the YWCA holds regular dance parties. She can shout down the stairs and call for help if her computer’s not working.

AmyJo Lennartson, local coordinator for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, likes to be able to touch base with other nonprofits, too. For the past 10 years, she has worked remotely, sometimes out of her car, sometimes out of her house.

“I’ve had a P.O. box,” she said, which has made sending and receiving mail difficult to say the least.

Though the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits has multiple resources available to community nonprofits, because Lennartson had no permanent office, it has been difficult to share them.

Now, new nonprofits doing research or applying for grants can just walk into her office, borrow a book and walk next door to the collaboration room.

Shared Spaces lends her, and the building’s other nonprofits, a new air of credibility, she said. Because the nonprofit is located right downtown near public transportation lines, it is easier to access and find.

“As a representative for the Council of Nonprofits, there is obviously no greater thing we want to do than raise the visibility of our sector in the community,” she said.

Two of the city’s biggest funders of nonprofits — Mankato Area Foundation and Greater Mankato United Way — are also in the building, which will make it easier for both to decide where to direct money and grants to make the most impact.

Add that to the fact that the whole environment of Shared Spaces is one of positive energy, and the model seems to be working.

“It’s excitement and energy, this really positive feeling,” Hayes said. “You can just hear energy and movement and laughter.”

Lennartson said for her, there’s “10 years of wanting to work with people, coming out, right now. Who isn’t more productive in a fun environment?”

Zallek, who was hoping all along that Shared Spaces would provoke that kind of response, says she thinks the nonprofits can learn from each other and over time, will find ways to do their work more effectively.

Though the concept of a nonprofit center is relatively new to Minnesota, it has a proven track record elsewhere, most notably in Denver, where there are 25 of them. She’s spoken to organizations there, who report that not only do they help save money, but increase productivity.

That might be because, “You only know what you know,” she said. “You see how other people approach something and you say, ‘I never thought of that.’ You come up with a whole new way of doing things.”