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City begins work on Vermillion Street Corridor project

This year, the downtown Riverfront Renaissance project will be finished. The project has earned praise from locals and outsiders alike in recent years, and it's considered a major point of pride for the Hastings City Council. But rather than sitting back and admiring their work, the council is pushing forward to another, bigger project: the Vermillion Street corridor.

"Let 2017 be known as the year that change on the Vermillion Street Corridor began," said Mayor Paul Hicks in his annual State of the City Address earlier this month.

On Monday, Feb. 6, the council authorized city staff to put out a request for proposals (RFP). This particular RFP seeks "qualified consultants, firms, or individuals to create a plan for the redevelopment and revitalization of Vermillion Street," according to the document. Morgan Hill, the city's new Economic Development Coordinator, explained to the council that whichever consultant is ultimately selected will then go about conducting a Vermillion Street Corridor Study, which would recommend sites that can be targeted for development or redevelopment, specific types of development that should occur and what role the city should play in those activities.

"The goal of this project is to obtain a working plan for economic growth and redevelopment along the corridor," the RFP states.

The RFP anticipates that all work associated with the study will be complete by the end of 2017.

Aesthetics

The city council hasn't yet decided what it wants the corridor to look like, but the RFP does note that the city is "significantly interested in the aesthetics of this corridor." It goes on to note that the present transportation and beautification issues in the corridor are not the main focus of the city's efforts. Instead, "the primary goal of this plan is to gain a complete understanding of how the City of Hastings and private business can improve utilization of properties and overall aesthetics of properties along the Vermillion Street Corridor," it reads.

The reference to beautification and overall aesthetics is one area that councilmember Trevor Lund wanted to see clarified.

"I think those are too similar and maybe you need to clarify further what you mean," he suggested to city staff at the meeting.

The emphasis for this study, he said, should be on business property utilization.

Hicks agreed and said that Hastings may get a chance to work on some street beautification issues in a few years.

"My discussions with MnDOT is that we're probably not that many years away from redoing Vermillion Street," he said. "And so, if we spend the time and effort now as we look to the future of this street in terms of what type of aesthetics we want to have, we might be working with MnDOT to be able to incorporate some of these ideas that come through this study for that eventual redo on Vermillion Street."

Not a first attempt

This year's study isn't the first time the city has looked to create a roadmap for development along Vermillion Street.

"We already have a plan in place that just doesn't quite fit the bill," Lund said at the council meeting.

In January of 2008, the Hastings Economic Development Commission completed the Vermillion Street Corridor Development Guidelines. That document set out to "improve the economic vitality and market position of the Vermillion Street corridor by developing a long term vision based on a unified approach to improve business viability, visual image, transportation and pedestrian safety."

Councilmember Mark Vaughan questioned if this new study will have anything to do with the 2008 document. Hicks said that the old plan does have value in terms of historical context.

"But I hope that our approach is new," Hicks said.

Councilmember Lori Braucks said she hopes this year's study will help create a more cohesive view of how the city approaches redevelopment.

"We need to have a vision of that going forward," she said.

Councilmember Tina Folch also wanted to see a better effort to look at a wider redevelopment picture. She said she'd like to see the corridor divided into zones, so the city can create strategic plans for each zone. That zone approach, along with involvement from key stakeholders in each zone, would help ensure development and redevelopment efforts have more synergy, "so it's not just one site at a time," she said.

Corridor concerns

While this study is just the first step in what is likely to be a multi-year effort, some council members raised a few specific concerns that they want to be considered as the process moves forward. Councilmember Joe Balsanek referred to MnDOT's recent announcement that it would raise speed limits on Highway 61 in Hastings. He's concerned about those speeds, he said. He questioned if the city will have to approach this study and future planning for the corridor with a 30- or 35-mph speed limit in mind

"Because a consultant will say there's a big difference," Balsanek said.

The other option, he said, would be to go back to MnDOT and attempt to keep the speeds as they are while the city works on improving the area.

Folch agreed. She said she talked with several people when she was campaigning who were concerned about speed limits, as well as the lack of adequate space for kids to walk or bike along the corridor.

"We should ... do that kind of road analysis," Folch said.

However, she suggested that effort might need to be done in a separate study.

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