Stretching Austin’s dollar

Lindsey Kepper, owner of the Yoga Studio is one of several businesses to thrive in Austin's growing business climate. After opening last year, it has already expanded by taking advantage of the Main Street Project Rent Reimbursement program.

Lindsey Kepper, owner of the Yoga Studio is one of several businesses to thrive in Austin’s growing business climate. After opening last year, it has already expanded by taking advantage of the Main Street Project Rent Reimbursement program.

Construction projects, more jobs and business programs bring slow but sure economic growth to city

It’s surprising how close local yoga resembles Austin’s economic growth.

Like a yogi stretching outward, the city of Austin is continuing its steady pattern of economic growth and expansion, much of which is because of business owners like Lindsey Kepper.

Kepper opened the Yoga Studio of Austin last July to a lot of attention from the community. Yet the studio space, on the second floor at 401 N. Main Street, was too small to accommodate Kepper’s goals.

“We were kind of limited in offering small adult classes when we started,” she said. “I knew I wanted to go the direction of offering kids yoga, because there wasn’t kids yoga being offered in the community at the time.”

Kepper set her sights on expanding the studio, through saving money and taking advantage of a rent reimbursement program through the Austin Main Street Project. That meant buying another space inside the building and renovating it to look less like “cubicles from the 1950s” as Kepper put it, and more like an open, warm and welcome environment for yoga enthusiasts to exercise.

“I had to move slower than I wanted to make sure I had the money,” Kepper said.

Her plans worked, as she opened another studio room in late 2012, and the studio has kept growing its services since then. Kepper took small steps to renovate the space into studios, from hiring out small construction and patchwork jobs to carpet work. She’s still not done, as someone is painting the walls of one of the studios this weekend.

“It’s baby steps every month, just going little by little to where I want the room to be,” Kepper said.

As a city, Austin has taken similar baby steps over the past several years, which translates to some explosive economic growth. High-profile projects like the $28-million Mayo Clinic Health System expansion at its Austin location, as well as the $29-million I.J. Holton Intermediate School and Woodson Kindergarten Center expansion have brought millions of dollars in construction into the area, while an increasing number of new businesses are opening in Austin commercial lots with future plans at the ready.

About 18 major construction or renovation projects took place in 2012, according to data compiled by Community Development Director Craig Hoium.

There were 1,323 total permits issued in Austin in 2012, bringing in about $47 million in projects. That’s a slight decline from the 1,371 permits in 2011, but last year’s construction is valued at more than $47 million, or almost $3 million more in economic growth than in 2011.

The city also added 15 new single-unit homes in 2012, an increase from the eight homes added the year before.

Austin has taken several steps to encourage such growth, such as the Main Street Project, which was designed to revitalize the downtown area, according to city administrator Jim Hurm. In eight years, the Main Street Project has helped 38 businesses renovate storefronts in downtown through small, low-interest loan programs. The rent reimbursement program Kepper signed up for gives a new downtown business 20 percent of its rent back to the business owner as a grant for one year.

“When I expanded and my rent check got bigger, I reapplied and they granted me 20 percent of my full bill,” Kepper said. “Now I’m thinking, ‘What more can we do in the community with the money that I’m saving?’”

Austin is getting ready to do more in the community this year. New businesses like Jimmy Johns should open this year, and larger projects like the renovation of the old Kmart building for home improvement store Runnings should take place in 2013, too.

All of these projects means more jobs in the community, as well. The Austin hospital expansion could bring in as many as 80 jobs, and the upcoming $28-million Hormel Institute expansion scheduled for next year is expected to bring in about 120 jobs next year. Unemployment has steadily gone down in Austin over the past several years, from peaking at 8 percent of Austin’s population in March 2009 to 4.5 percent this past December, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

“This community has been very fortunate in going through this recent recession in that we’ve weathered that quite well,” Hoium said. “We’ve had some substantial developments in health care, Hormel and the school district.

“All those projects are creating additional employment in the community.”

It’s also the reason why Austin is stretching out in economic growth more than some of its closest neighbors. Owatonna had more total permits than Austin at 1,767 last year, but only drew in about $29 million in construction. Albert Lea had substantially fewer permits, at 479, than Austin last year. But it brought in $20 million, still less than half the construction Austin gained.

Many greater Minnesota businesses aren’t as confident in economic growth heading into 2013, according to forecast surveys from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Yet large rural cities like Austin continue to attract more people, including younger families, as more jobs come into the area.

City officials are looking for more people to come into the area and open businesses, just like Kepper did. Kepper and the yoga studio earned the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year award in 2012, and Kepper hopes to continue growing yoga in the area. The studio has added Thai Yoga Bodywork to its offerings and Kepper will hold a fundraiser to help Vision 2020 — the community improvement initiative — build a large stage in the downtown plaza lot.

The studio will hold a Yoga Mala, or a series of poses representing 108 sun salutations, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 29. Participants must pay $25, and all proceeds will go to Vision 2020’s building expenses. For more information, call 507-440-1073 or go to

Much like the hot yoga offered at the yoga studio, Austin’s economic growth is only heating up, especially where Vision 2020 is concerned. As Vision 2020 organizers further projects and goals, even more projects, money and businesses should come to the area.

“Vision 2020 is going to make this a pretty darn nice community, which is tying in nicely with economic development efforts,” Hurm said. “Let’s turn up the fire a little bit and see if we can’t get things started with Vision 2020 efforts.”

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