City revitalization: It starts here

What happens when 58 business leaders gather to talk about downtown Princeton’s future?

Simple. They take the first steps to revitalizing downtown and filling the city’s 17 vacant store fronts.

The city of Princeton and the Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce kicked off a revitalization program Thursday, May 18 called “It Starts Here.”

And if you were to ask any of the downtown property owners, business owners, local realtors and bankers, members of the city’s economic development commission, city council and chamber members, the meeting was the start of something special.

The goal of “It Starts Here” is revitalizing downtown by filling the vacant spaces with new businesses, said Princeton community development director Carie Fuhrman.

“It’s a good time to get going, because we have 16 vacant spaces in a nine-block area, and that’s a lot for a city the size of Princeton,” Fuhrman told the crowd.

The fact that an 118,000-square foot Walmart store is coming to Princeton also makes it a good time to embark on a revitalization project, she said.

Why is it important that downtown gets a face-lift?

“Downtown is our face to the world, and its condition speaks volumes,” Fuhrman said.

“Our vibrancy — or lack of — affects our ability to attract and retain residents,” she said.

Fuhrman engaged the group in a discussion about building facades, streetscapes, and signage of downtown businesses. She talked about her desire to establish grant or loan programs that could help business owners embark on the reinventing of their businesses.

The city and chamber are calling on residents and business owners to make a personal investment of time and energy in helping their neighbors make their properties more attractive to potential new businesses.

Fuhrman also said she would like to see the Princeton community invest in its future through a popular new funding mechanism called “crowd-sourced funding” in which community members — and people outside the community who are interested in a project — make contributions to the revitalization project. Such funding can lead to an increased commitment from lending institutions, she said. A requirement of any funding mechanism would be participation in the chamber’s business mentoring program.

Another aspect of revitalizing downtown involves an increased level of community investment.

Chamber director Mary Chapman said the “It Starts Here” program is not only geared at filling vacant spaces, but in making the vacant spaces either saleable or leasable.

She outlined a volunteer program aimed at cleaning these vacant buildings, as well as sprucing up their landscaping.

Barry Kirchoff, director of the St. Cloud Small Business Development Center, said the community has to get people to want to visit downtown Princeton.

That can happen by business owners offering unique shops that offer a unique experience, Kirchoff said.

Princeton should also capitalize on its existing resources (including the Rum River) to create a downtown atmosphere that will attract people from both inside and outside the city limits and make downtown Princeton a destination.