Vision takes shape

Published 4:03 pm Thursday, August 23, 2012

Head of the Port Authority Jerry McCarthy meets with Bonnie Rietz, from right, Laura Helle and Alex Bumgardner, power production director during a tour of the downtown utilities plant Thursday. The utilities building has a unique part to play in the on-going of process of Vision 2020.

Committees working to make ideas a reality

Just think: In 10 years’ time, Austin could be radically transformed by a community partnership.

There could be fewer cars on the streets, and more people walking or biking around. There could be cleaner water running through the Cedar River and collecting in Austin’s ponds. Residents could gather at a new community recreation center with activities for everyone, from youth to seniors. Everyone could experience some of the fastest Internet speeds and have access to the most technology in the area, maybe even the state or nation.

Those ideas are slowly but surely taking shape as Vision2020 committees are narrowing their goals.

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Vision2020, the community-driven organization hoping to make great positive changes to Austin by the year 2020, is starting to gain speed as committees released a progress update last week.

“Everything is progressing, really, the way we thought it would,” said Laura Helle, executive director at the Hormel Historic Home and Vision2020 organizer.

Many committees have solid goals to work for, while some committees are still gathering information on how best to improve the town. That’s due, in part, to each committee’s tasks to accomplish. For every Bike/Walk Trail System Committee, which will focus on three objectives, there’s an Education Leaders Committee, which is still gathering information on how to make Austin education a leader in the state. Several committees, such as the Community Wide Technology Committee, are in similar situations, as the technology committee could affect Austin’s technological prowess in many ways.

That’s part of the process, according to Vision2020 volunteers.

“Some are much more able to get the lay of the land and make their decisions much sooner,” Helle said.

Yet each group is making progress, creating smaller goals to gain momentum and get closer to a plan of action. The Bike/Walk Trail System committee has defined its goals, and is partnering with Envision MN — a conservation group dedicated to spreading sustainable practices in the environment — to find ways to promote what Austin already has.

“Some of the committees are working on mini-projects that are going to be an early win,” Helle said. “And that early win is going to build momentum for committees going forward.”

The Daily Herald examined several committees that are working toward improving Austin.

Making strides to reenergize

Bonnie Rietz, co-chair of the Austin Artworks Festival, walks inside the downtown utilities plant Thursday with the head of the port authority, Jerry McCarthy.

While some of the projects are still in the early planning stages, one in particular has a clear vision.

The “Revitalization of Austin Utilities Building” group has split into four sub-committees, one each to: form a tax-exempt non-profit to operate the facility; design and renovate the building over the next two years; plan for events and annual festivals that would attract Austin residents and tourists alike; and begin identifying and eventually recruiting restaurants and businesses, including the Spam Museum.

Although they don’t have a specific timeline yet, co-chair Jerry McCarthy said one of the first steps is creating the non-profit to own the building, a process with the Internal Revenue Service he says takes about nine months. Then, the non-profit would operate and maintain the building, and eventually manage the tenants.

“They’re not looking for any one tenant to carry the financial load of the facility,” Helle said.

Renovating the building is also early on the agenda. The first level of the utilities building is 24,000-square feet, and by 2020, the group is hoping to be using all of it. But before that can happen, a remodel is in order.

While plans are still in early development, the group sees the renovation taking place in three stages. First, they would form a design team of architects, engineers and a historical consultant to work with potential tenants. Then, they would draft construction documents and pause for cost estimates. Those two phases would take about nine months. Then, the third and final phase, construction, would take about 12 months.

The third group, in charge of event and festival planning, already has something in the works. The Austin Artworks Festival , which takes place Aug. 25-26 and features Austin-based art, authors, music and entertainment, will give the public an early look at what the vision can offer.

As the project develops, the group plans to create “flex space” and continually attract events like the farmers’ market in the winter, other art festivals, and more.

The fourth group has the all-important task of attracting businesses. While it hasn’t named many specific businesses or restaurants it wants to attract, the Spam Museum is among them. But McCarthy said before they can approach Hormel Foods Corp., though, they need to put together a plan.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is put together a good business plan and go to Hormel and tell them we’ve filled the rest of the building, if they’re interested we have the space for the Spam Museum,” he said.

Other early ideas include a restaurant, art galleries, a children’s train museum, a revolving trade show space, a dance studio, a bike museum or bike rental through Rydjor Bike, and even an ice cream shop.

“We want to draw people in,” said Bonnie Rietz, co-chair of the Utilities Building project. “We have two focuses with the building: attract people locally and draw in tourists.”

Anyone interested in joining the committee can call Helle at 507-433-4243 or can show up at its next meeting, which is 4:30 p.m. Sept. 6 at the Austin Public Library.

Downtown Austin group divides to conquer

Nearly four months to the day following the grand April 18 reveal of the 10 final Vision 2020 ideas, the group looking to make downtown Austin a premier small city center reports it is keeping to schedule.

Stephnee Leathers, chair of the Downtown Austin a Destination Point Committee, said they’ve had a Vision 2020 chair meeting, and based on the progress report, most are on target.

The downtown committee is focused on developing a park or plaza gathering area to host outdoor events throughout the year. According to the idea description, it aims to strengthen public interaction in the neighborhood and stimulate economic development in the area.

“We’ve kind of narrowed down some overall goals,” said Leathers, adding they broke down into short-, mid- and long-term goals.

On Tuesday, the committee met at Town Center to map out downtown Austin. They noted the vacancies to see what spaces were available, and intended to lay out a definition for exactly what “downtown” refers to.

“What’s included in downtown and what are the parameters there?” Leathers said. “That will help us decide what future events we could have.”

During the meeting, however, the committee decided to leave the exact boundaries of the neighborhood undefined, in hopes it would leave more opportunities available down the road.

The committee has embraced a plan to divide and conquer. It broke into four subcommittees to deal with its four major concerns: business activities, vacancies, the park plaza area and connecting Main Street to nearby sections of Fourth Avenue.

“The nice thing about subcommittees is they can work independently and come back together,” she said.

The Fourth Avenue/Main Street subcommittee builds off the presence of establishments on Fourth Avenue, like the Paramount Theatre, to add to the feel of Main Street.

“They are connected in terms of what’s available to the community,” Leathers said.

Going forward, the committee will meet every two weeks. The next major landmark will be for a check-in with the Vision 2020 Steering Committee. Though no specific date has been set yet, that meeting will come in September or October.

Right now, about 15 people make up the committee’s volunteers.

“We have some tried and true volunteers that have been with us since the very beginning,” Leathers said.

But the committee’s still looking for help. She stressed the need to get input from many different people, rather than leave the Vision 2020 efforts up to a few active volunteers. The committee especially seeks passionate new volunteers who are not attached to a specific business.

“In the end, it’s everyone’s community,” Leathers said.

Those interested in getting involved with the Downtown Austin as a Destination Point Committee can reach Leathers or co-chair Sarah Douty by visiting The committee’s next meeting is Sept. 12 at 7 p.m.

Ideas still flowing for waterways

Kids line up along East Side Lake for the annual Kids' Fishing Contest, part of Freedom Fest, earlier this year.

The ideas aren’t done flowing for Vision 2020.

Even though the community’s ideas have been whittled down, the Embrace and Maintain Waterways committee is still knee-deep in discussing its direction.

The waterways committee has been tasked with coming up with projects for the waterways, particularly ways to clean and maintain them, ways to enhance recreation, and ways to beatify them.

“That’s a pretty open-ended vision statement,” committee chair Sam Jewell admitted.

But committee members have been coming up with ideas for how to accomplish their broad goal. Committee members have broken that into four key goals to focus on, and each will now become a sub-committee:

—1. Improve water quality by cleaning waterways and shorelines.

—2. Promote recreational activities on and around waterways.

—3. Enhance waterways by adding new features, new access points and by revitalizing old access points.

—4. Educate the public about local waterways.


After several brain-storming sessions, the 34 committee members will officially break into the sub committees at their next meeting on Aug. 22.

Each of the four sub committees has its work cut out for it, as Jewell noted each has 20 ideas or more being discussed.

Ideas include how to eliminate algae blooms and how to make the water cleaner.

The group discussing recreation is throwing around ideas for activities throughout the year, like rental spots for kayaking and canoeing, or installing lighted walkways. Members are also talking about developing a fishing habitat and holding ice fishing or snowmobile events.

For education, members have talked about a mascot to promote the waterways in parades and around the community.

Despite its broad goal, the waterways committee isn’t alone in its task. Work to clean up the waterways is already being done, particularly by the Cedar River Watershed District.

Jewell said they’ll look to cooperate with other agencies and make sure no groups are doubling up. CRWD officials are involved with the committee.

CRWD Administrator Bev Nordby previously said the committee’s and CRWD’s goals go hand-in-hand.

Early this summer, the Cedar River was designated as an official state water trail, something Jewell said Vision 2020 could capitalize on.

“It should help us,” Jewell said. “If we go for state funding, we can leverage that.”

Committee members haven’t yet addressed how to fund their ideas, but they’re not letting that stop them. Still, Jewell said the ideas will be flushed out, and the sub committees will discuss if an idea is high or low cost. Eventually, the ideas will be prioritized and discussed with the full committee.

“We may not be successful on everything, but unless you try you won’t know,” Jewell said.

These committees will continue developing ideas before reporting back to the entire waterways committee.

Aside from a few members involved in the Cedar River Watershed District, Jewell said most of the committee members are not experts in waterways, but they are enthusiastic.

“We’ve all got one common goal: We’re very passionate about our waterways and hoping for them to be able to be enjoyed by all,” he said.

The group hasn’t yet determined a timeline of upcoming steps to accomplishing their goals. Despite the eagerness to get things done, Jewell said, it will take time to complete their goals and bring their ideas to fruition.

“This is not a sprint; it’s more of a marathon,” Jewell said. “It’s going to take time to get a lot of these things accomplished.”

Jewell said the waterways committee, like other Vision 2020 groups, is still looking for more members.