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Chaska Herald column, April 5, 2012: City needs to stick to the plan

Below is the commentary I wrote for this week’s Chaska Herald:

There has been significant angst expressed in the Chaska Herald’s letters to the editor and in various online forums about some of the recent happenings in the city’s business environment.  Let’s put a little perspective around some of these events.

In January, the abrupt closing of the Chaska Rex movie theater again raised concerns about the viability of businesses in downtown Chaska.  Letter writers in the March 15 and March 22 editions of the Herald called for more attention from the City Council, media outlets, and residents to the situation.

The challenges that downtown Chaska faces didn’t just develop in the last couple of years; it’s been an ongoing process for a long time.  I haven’t lived here as long as many of you (nine years and counting now), but one letter writer pointed out significant business closings downtown going back to the late 1980s.  People can and will go back and dissect things the City Council did or didn’t do, ways society has changed, and ways our community has changed to determine why things developed the way they did.

But what we need to focus on as a community is: how do we go forward from here?  Many of the critics point the finger at the City Council.  I’ll certainly agree that the Council has at times seemed slow to recognize or react to the problems downtown.

The Downtown Master Plan should change that equation, though.  The final chapter of the document sets out a number of guidelines for implementation of the Plan.  It is critical that the Council and city staff follows the prescriptions in that Plan and start addressing some of the “low-hanging fruit” that can provide immediate benefits to the downtown community.

I’m hopeful this can occur.  A few years ago, questions about parking downtown would be answered by references to statistical studies that showed that their formulas said there was more than enough parking downtown – ignoring the real facts that people don’t park their cars based on statistical studies.  Now, the city seems to understand that if people think there’s a parking problem, then there’s a parking problem.  Perception is – in cases like this – reality.

The Plan calls for annual action plans to be created and published, so the public can be aware of how progress is being made on these objectives.  Key things that can be done now include:  improving signage in and around downtown and across Chaska to funnel people to the downtown region, continue work with key partners (like Southwest Metro Transit) to improve parking options downtown, and develop marketing strategies and collateral for attracting businesses, customers, and tourists to downtown.

A great deal of time, effort, and taxpayer expense has gone into the creation of this Plan.  It is up to us as citizens to hold city officials accountable for carrying through and making the changes prescribed in the Plan, however.  It is also up to us as citizens to recognize that the city can’t do everything on its own.  The city can do much to make Chaska an attractive place to own and operate a business, but it is ultimately up to those business owners to elect to invest in Chaska.

This point brings us to the second event that concerned some in our community:  the approval of the building of a second McDonald’s location in the city.

Everybody has got their own personal favorite restaurant or retail store that they’d love to see in Chaska.  From Taco Bell to Whole Foods, from IHOP to Trader Joe’s, just about every name has been bandied about by someone.

In the end, though, what we would like has to bump up against the reality of who wants to make the investment in our community.  The Hazeltine Plaza development was platted in 2006 to have up to three small- to medium-box sized retail stores next to Kohl’s, plus two small Chaska Commons style strip malls that could each hold up to nine businesses each, plus two fast-food restaurant pads.

Yet, Kohl’s has sat up there alone since September 2008.

It would be nice to turn up our noses at a second McDonald’s because there’s a long line of other companies willing to snap up that spot and build there instead.  But, unfortunately, that isn’t the case right now.  And yes, there’s concern about whether or not this area can support two McDonald’s.  On the other hand, no company has a better record of picking sites across the globe than they do.

So, let’s welcome McDonald’s investment in Chaska and hope that their example inspires others to follow.  With hard work and cooperation across our city, we can build thriving business communities in downtown and on top of the hill.

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