Austin in focus

Published 8:00 am Sunday, December 4, 2011

Residents can choose from 91 ideas to make town better

It might not be 100 ideas as promised, but the Vision 2020 Idea Selection Committee is releasing 91 ways to improve Austin by 2020.

The list of ideas encompasses practically everything under the sun, from clear-cut proposals like a global festival to more abstract goals, like having the best public schools.

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Though there are plenty of ideas, voters must ultimately choose 10 of them. Community members can vote online starting Sunday at, or submit paper ballots — found in the Herald special section in today’s paper — to the Austin Public Library or the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Several of the 91 ideas presented by Vision 2020 would boost arts and entertainment in Austin. - Herald file photo

Community members are asked to pick their five favorite ideas in no particular order.

Once voting is complete, the committee takes over again, finalizing the top 10 ideas by March 1, 2012. From there, the group will begin working to make the ideas to improve Austin a reality by 2020.

For more information on the Austin Vision 2020 movement, contact Mandi Lighthizer-Schmidt (Marketing Committee member) at 437-2313 or e-mail

Touring Austin

Perhaps the biggest supporter of the Vision 2020 project is the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.

That’s because anything that improves Austin will obviously improve tourism. Ask Austin CVB Executive Director Cheryl Corey, and she’ll say improvement relies on partnerships with other cities.

“We’re all about partnering, anything we can do to partner with other communities,” she said.

One idea that has popped up multiple times on the vision 2020 list is a larger convention center for bigger events, especially concerts.

Corey uses a new fieldhouse at the fairgrounds as a hypothetical. Even though Austin CVB wouldn’t be able to fund a project like that, it would heavily support it, Corey said.

“Say the one that comes to the top for us, we’d get way behind it and really support it,” Corey said, and added she and others would form a committee to advocate for something like that.

Though a building like that would be able to house various performing arts, Corey and Paramount Theatre Executive Director Jennie Germain are pushing for all types of arts, as well.

“The arts are a huge part about what we promote,” Corey said.

At the CVB’s board retreat in October, members met with other tourism promoters from Albert Lea, Owatonna and Faribault — all cities close to Austin with similar characteristics.

As ideas for Vision 2020 roll in, many have suggested changes or improvements to Austin’s waterways and lakes. - Herald file photo

“They’re really similar cities in size and amenities, and it just seems like it would be a natural fit,” Corey said.

Corey said if all these cities and Austin focus on improvements, the entire area could be more appealing. One option could be a progressive tour of a 50-mile radius, of which convention and visitors bureaus could coordinate into a package. But the area would need more attractions for that to happen.

While Austin CVB members have been coordinating with nearby cities, Germain and art supporters have been gleaning ideas from cities around the nation. For example, Kohler Co. of Sheboygan, Wis., encourages artists to make artwork from its faucet materials. Germain said something similar could be done in Austin to promote The Hormel Institute’s cancer research.

Among large-scale changes like that, Germain also thinks small-scale changes, like expanding the Paramount Theatre, Hormel Historic Home and Spam Museum are very achievable.

Furthermore, Germain wants to see a place where people can experiment with art on their own time, like the clay house that used to be in Austin, where people could make their own clay creations.

“In today’s day and age, people need to be able to do things on their own time,” Germain said.

The Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau board and art committee both have more upcoming meetings to hone in on realistic Vision 2020 possibilities.

Corey and Germain both emphasized that Vision 2020 is about making Austin more appealing to outsiders and residents alike.

 The youth vote

If there’s one thing Austin needs, it’s a bigger youth center, according to many residents.

There are two ideas out of the 91 selected that deal with building a youth center in town, out of more than 100 ideas dealing with youth from the original 3,000 ideas. Area youth and teens could be served by a year-round Youth Center, or a center focused specifically on music and developing youth artistic talent. Yet many people don’t know the city of Austin already runs a Youth Activity Center.

The center, around since at least 1997, is open usually from September to March or April, according to Parks and Recreation Supervisor Valerie Pitzen.

“When it gets nice, we’d rather have the kids outside,” she said.

Pitzen said about 40 teens and children from fifth grade up go to the center, located inside Riverside Arena. Yet the center has a few issues, as well. City officials have difficulty spreading information about the center. In addition, the center has to close early whenever a Bruins game, graduation or other event happens at Riverside. Since the center moved from Austin’s Armory, the center lost a gymnasium that children and teens could be using.

Pitzen said ideally the city would put a fieldhouse near Riverland Community College to serve teens and young adults under the legal drinking age who don’t have many social options. That idea is far from fruition, however, she knows that plenty of residents would like to see an expanded youth center.

“There’s a big demand for it,” she said.

Area youths are pleased residents are thinking about including activities and places that appeal to young people.

“It’s nice to know that we’re not forgotten,” said Austin High School senior Matt Tylutki.

 What about the mall?

Along with enhancements to tourism and activities for the youth, another pattern that kept emerging was improvements and new business for Oak Park Mall.

Shan Kehrit, Oak Park Mall marketing director, said she and others hope to get the mall back to the way it was 20 to 30 years ago, although strides have been made in that direction.

Kehrit pointed to the Ole Barn BBQ restaurant and a Native American educational center called Spirit Bear Academy, which both opened Thursday, and Sears’ announcement on Wednesday that it would move from inside the mall to an exterior location and double its size. Additionally, owners of The Kitchen Warehouse — a portion of The Restaurant Warehouse which moved temporarily to the mall in September after its original building was destroyed in a fire in August — decided to keep their business in the mall because of popular demand. The new owner of CineMagic7 also announced it would upgrade its movie theater to digital and 3D digital projection.

“We need to get the mall back to the way it was,” Kehrit said. “I would like to see the mall full; but with our population, it’s against us. A lot of chains and name-brand stores won’t come into a town with our population.”

To that end, Kehrit said she is trying to attract smaller, local businesses.

“It seems like when one store comes in, I get a lot of inquiries,” she said.

Kehrit said now is a great time for a small business to open in the mall, because rent is affordable.

“It’s a really good time to get started,” she said.

Kehrit, who was at Vision 2020’s Night of Big Ideas, said she heard a lot of creative ways the mall could become more vibrant.

“I was there that night, and I really did hear a lot of great ideas,” she said.

Among the ideas to improve the mall were three that made the final 91: a recreational center for families, including bowling, pool tables, a walk track and climbing wall in the mall; create a “retail incubator” in the mall; and a water park with indoor/outdoor attractions using the mall area.

Kehrit said she embraces all ideas that would improve the mall and said a recreational center is not only a good idea, it’s something she has already begun to implement.

Kehrit points to entertainment planned almost every weekend, including the second annual Merry Tuba Christmas, which took place Saturday, a Just For Kix dance event on Dec. 10, an Acclaim Studio of Dance performance on Dec. 17, and a visit from Santa Claus every weekend from now until Christmas. The mall also houses the Austin Area Farmers’ Market in the winter through the end of December (every Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m. in the center court) and hosts auctions by Dave Thompson, including an auction on Dec. 17 and at least two in January and February.

“Those are big draws for the mall,” Kehrit said. “They’ve been a huge success.”

Adam Harringa, Matt Peterson and Trey Mewes contributed to this  story