John Grossman retiringImagine for a moment, downtown Hastings as it is today. Now, take away all the historic buildings like the Gardner Hotel (now Gardner Apartments) and the towering Finch building at the corner of Second and Sibley streets. Insert in their place the East Second Street Strip Mall, a non-descript row of chain stores and fast food restaurants.
Imagine for a moment, downtown Hastings as it is today. Now, take away all the historic buildings like the Gardner Hotel (now Gardner Apartments) and the towering Finch building at the corner of Second and Sibley streets. Insert in their place the East Second Street Strip Mall, a non-descript row of chain stores and fast food restaurants.
Sound far-fetched? It wasn’t in the early 1980s. Malls were the wave of the future then, and there were some in Hastings who felt the city would be better off razing downtown and building a mall there. As you probably know, however, that didn’t happen.
“Downtown has a role in the community, and one that was maybe more questionable 25 years ago,” said John Grossman, the director of the city’s Economic Development and Redevelopment Authority.
Later this month, Grossman will retire from his post at city hall, closing the door on more than 25 years of work restoring downtown, helping people fix up old houses, getting businesses to move into the industrial park, and more.
Coming to town
Grossman graduated from the University of St. Thomas in 1965 and soon after enrolled in graduate school there. In 1967, he joined the Army and trained for a year, then spent a year deployed in Korea. He worked as the company clerk in the office of an adjutant general.
When he got out of the Army in 1969, Grossman got a job with the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office. There, he wrote the LeDuc house’s nomination for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
“That was my first little taste of Hastings,” Grossman said.
From 1969 to 1978, Grossman worked on the restoration of Fort Snelling. As archeologists would dig up buildings and construction materials, it was Grossman’s job to research what the buildings would have looked like in their prime so they could be restored or reconstructed. The research helped shape what Fort Snelling looks like today.
After a few years of doing freelance graphic design, the recession of the early 1980s hit and he found himself looking for a steadier job.
At the same time, Hastings had been selected by the state for inclusion in what was called the Main Street program, which sought to help older towns restore their historic “Main Street” areas.
Grossman applied for the job, which was technically a two-year temporary position, and he became the Main Street Manager when he was hired. He got an office at the old city hall at 100 Sibley St. and got to work.
Since the late 1800s when most of the buildings downtown were constructed, a lot had been added to them over the years to make them more modern looking. Whether it was false fronts, metal awnings, or painfully bad turquoise paint jobs, the buildings in downtown had become more of a patchwork than a cohesive whole, a change Grossman put delicately.
“Downtown had become … eclectic, to say the least,” he said. “It didn’t add up to a pleasant appearance.”
Thanks to grants from the Main Street program and a tax increment financing district that was set up in downtown in the late 1970s, the city made money available to building owners in downtown for restoration projects.
“The business owners in downtown really took advantage of that in a big way,” Grossman said.
From the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, every building owner did some sort of restoration to his or her property or properties, Grossman said. Some summers, there were three or four buildings being restored at once.
One of the people performing those restorations was Tom Jung. Throughout several restorations Jung was a part of, Grossman was always his main resource for design questions.
“He was our contact,” Jung said. “He’d say it’s OK to do it this way, not OK to do it that way.”
Longtime Historic Preservation Commission member Bert Goderstad fondly recalls Grossman’s guidance as the commission worked through issuing permits for the restorations.
“I feel that most of the commissioners on the HPC really appreciated the time and effort he put in,” Goderstad said.
False fronts were removed and buildings like 116 E. Second St., where Lillian’s is today, had their original facades restored. The natural-looking limestone blocks that make up that building had been covered up, likely by someone who thought they looked too antiquated, Grossman said.
The stained glass windows on the front of 216 E. Second St., home today to Creative Confectionaire, were discovered when a false front on the building was removed.
“It (the restoration) was good for the buildings, but visitors started going to find historic towns for the ambiance,” Grossman said.
Restorations of historic downtowns were a new idea when it was done in Hastings, Grossman said, but since then it’s become a “best practice” for cities. Many newer communities today work hard and spend a lot of money trying to recreate commercial districts like downtown Hastings, Grossman said.
“The traditional look became a marketing tool for cities looking for an edge in a world of big box and grocery stores,” he said.
The Downtown Business Association is still using that marketing tool today. The Saturday Night Cruise-Ins are a perfect example of that, Grossman said.
Over the years, there have been ups and downs and a fair amount of turnover downtown, but Grossman said it’s found a unique balance with a variety of business types and services offered. While driving through downtown on a recent morning, he was struck by the fact that there’s just one vacant building there today, in spite of the slow economy.
“That’s pretty incredible considering what’s going on out there,” he said.
Those close to him reflect
When most people at the city level or in the business community talk about what Grossman has done for Hastings, downtown is the first thing that comes up. In a sense, one might think of it as Grossman’s legacy, but not if you ask him.
“My personality hasn’t ever been oriented to legacies,” Grossman said. “I thought there was a job to do, and I did it.”
As downtown changed and found its place in the community, Grossman said he changed, too.
“I guess I found my niche as well,” he said with a smile.
In talking about his time at the city, Grossman used the word “gratifying” more than a few times. In a word, it seems to sum up how he feels about his career at the city. He also pointed out that he is just one person, and all the projects he’s worked on over the years wouldn’t have happened without the help of others.
That original two-year temporary position as the Main Street Manager grew into 25 years of work for the city, mostly as the director of the now dissolved Housing and Redevelopment Authority.
Grossman predates another longtime city employee, City Administrator Dave Osberg, by about five years. Osberg came to the city in 1989, and the two have worked down the hall from each other for the past 21 years.
In the inter-office dynamics of Hastings City Hall, Osberg said Grossman provides stability. When the chips are up, Grossman doesn’t get overly happy, and when things aren’t going well, he doesn’t get flustered. Osberg said he always knew the job would get done if Grossman were the one working on it.
“I will miss him dearly,” Osberg said.
Mayor Paul Hicks has worked with Grossman in a variety of capacities, while he was on the Natural Resources and Recreation Commission, City Council, and now as the mayor. He called Grossman an “outstanding employee.”
Hicks said Grossman has been a resource for city staff and elected officials alike. He complimented Grossman’s problem-solving skills and great sense of history.
“That enthusiasm for history has been reflected in his efforts downtown,” Hicks said.
Pioneer Room curator Cindy Thury Smith said Grossman is one of the best bosses she’s ever had. He’s upfront about budgetary issues and constraints, and gives her the leeway to come up with and execute projects that may fall outside her official duties.
Grossman said he’s going to take his time deciding what he wants to do once he’s retired.
“What do retired people do? Sleep in, drink coffee and read books,” he joked.
He plans to do some small-scale traveling with his wife, Suzanne, and work around the house. He said he wants to try some things he’s never before had the chance to try.
“It’s sort of like jumping out of a plane with a parachute, you never know where you’re going to land,” he said.