A highway runs through it: City aims to revitalize West End
Sitting at the intersection of Minnesota Highway 33 and Cloquet Avenue, a glance to the east reveals the world's only working Frank Lloyd Wright-designed gas station, the red-brick post office and a wide avenue hinting at many businesses and green spaces stretching down blocks of downtown Cloquet.
A look to the west reveals Fauley Park with its train and trees, a handful of businesses and an unremarkable parking lot bordered by a long-vacant building as well as the back side of various upstairs apartments. The heart of the West End business district and its historic buildings, Avenue C, is largely invisible from the highway.
That's a problem.
However, it's a problem the city of Cloquet and its Economic Development Authority are working to address. They are taking steps to make the business district on that side of the highway more visible and more attractive to business owners and visitors alike.
The first phase of the enhancements has been largely physical. Thanks in large part to local sales tax funds, the city of Cloquet has made multiple improvements in and around the West End, with huge parks projects at Veterans and Dunlap Island parks as well as Fauley Park. Reconstruction of Broadway Street, which connects Minnesota Highway 33 to the West End and Dunlap Island, is mostly complete. The new roadway and sidewalks will make access easier for pedestrians, bicyclists and even ATV drivers.
Pedestrian and bicycle activity along Broadway has seen a visible uptick this summer. During the day and over lunch hours, kids are biking down Broadway, attracted to the new Dunlap Island Park. Soon, there will be better signage directing people to the West End and Dunlap Island and historic-style lamp posts that tie both parts of the business district together by design.
Part two is financial and largely driven by the EDA, which has designated one of its loan funds for West End business loans. Any owner-occupied business that qualifies for the loan can also apply for up to $10,000 in grant money from the EDA to help pay for eligible building improvements.
"This really is a historic gem in the city of Cloquet, a rich collection of some of our most significant post (1918) fire structures," Ward 2 City Councilor and EDA Vice President David Bjerkness said at a press conference to introduce the new loan and grant program in June. "There's a lot of activity here. And all these new projects will bring new energy to the West End."
Lee Harris, a member of the nonprofit Kingdom Builders board that own the former Chief Theater building, is optimistic.
"This would be a beautiful district for arts and entertainment," Harris said. "And we'd love to see more traffic coming to the area. And obviously, we'd love to have help improving our our building."
Wood City Nutrition owner Stephanie Hulett said she'd love to see more businesses pull more traffic to the West End.
It may seem like ancient history, but once upon a time, Minnesota Highway 33 did not exist. At the intersection of Cloquet Avenue and Avenue D heading into the West End, the intersection of Minnesota Highway 33 was simply a "T." Traffic patterns were required to head east or west.
The decline of the West End district started with the departure of City Hall from the district, which occurred after Minnesota Highway 33 was constructed through Cloquet in the mid-1960s. The loss of City Hall left the district without the purpose for which it was designed: to be the municipal center of governance in the city, according to Cloquet Community Development Director Holly Hansen.
In 1995, the Minnesota Department of Transportation raised the bridge over the St. Louis River to a higher elevation and eliminated the off ramp from the highway onto Dunlap Island and Broadway Street. Traffic patterns in the city were changed, forever affecting the West End and the city's connection to its riverfront.
Gone was the exit ramp to Dunlap Island. Today, Main Street, which runs next to the Northeastern Hotel & Saloon on Dunlap Island, rarely sees a vehicle unless it belongs to a confused camper or the couple who own the only home there. Broadway Avenue gets busy when shifts change at USG and trucks travel to Upper Lakes Food, but residential traffic is scarce.
The West End business district, rebuilt in the years immediately after the city was destroyed by the 1918 fires, boasts the most condensed collection of historic buildings in the city, but also the most vacant storefronts. Many of the storefronts are located in buildings where mortgage payments are covered by upstairs apartment rentals. Others, like the former Robert's Home Furnishings, are simply vacant.
According to Hansen's calculations, 35 percent of the commercial buildings in the West End are completely vacant — like Smokies, where the utilities have not been turned on in more than a decade — or have vacant storefronts. Fifteen percent are partially vacant. Eight percent have had old storefronts covered up or made into garage entrances and 4 percent are only open on an intermittent basis.
"That leaves 38 percent of the West End business district occupied," Hansen told residents and media gathered at the press conference in June.
There are a number of viable businesses in the West End.
The Common Ground coffee shop is located on the ground floor of the old Chief Theater. Its owners have hosted several bands, comedians and other community events in the renovated movie theater. There are various professional offices — insurance, attorney and psychotherapist — on the 100 block, along with an Herbalife shake bar and the Rock Place, which sells polished rocks and minerals. A make-your-own pottery shop, tattoo parlor and interior decorating business are open by appointment only.
On Arch Street, a half-block off Avenue C, the Veterans of Foreign Wars is bustling and Muckala and Werhan Accounting is going strong.
At the far end of the West End business district sits Northern Printery and, across the street, the 1st National Plaza Building, a beautifully renovated building that was one of the first buildings completed following the 1918 fires.
Owners Zach and Stephanie Wehr had high hopes for the building when they purchased and renovated it in 2005. In the years since, it has housed a high-end women's clothing boutique, a paint store, a high-end children's clothing and toy store, a candy shop and a tropical fish store, among other businesses. Many of those businesses have closed or are on hold, with the exception of the paint store.
Zach said he is still hopeful, but has learned to diversify his business interests. He is moving his Eclipse Paint and Design Studio down the block to 122 Avenue C, a historic West End building he also owns that was vacated when the Pine Journal closed its office and relocated to Duluth in January.
He believes the loan and grant programs are a good idea, but acknowledges the West End has challenges.
"A lot of other places don't have a freeway running through the center of town," Wehr said. "I drove down to North Carolina recently and drove through towns where you'd have to slow down to 30 mph and you'd really see places. Highway 33 really cut up Cloquet."
Another challenge, according to Zach, is the attitude of many of the property owners in the West End.
"Stephanie really had a vision for this area, but she got a lot of pushback from other building owners who didn't want to change," he said. "And they didn't want to put more money into their places. They have apartments and those were making money. Good enough."
When the Avenue C restaurant opened up two years ago in the First National Plaza building, Zach, along with many other residents, hoped it would be the spark that would revitalize Cloquet's historic West End business district.
While popular, it wasn't always busy and the restaurant closed its doors less than a year after it opened.
Zach's company did the construction for the restaurant, but he was not the proprietor. He is hoping a new bar or restaurant or other business will come knocking.
After all, Cloquet still doesn't have a brewery or brewpub like so many other cities do.
"You need bigger risk takers that have the money to weather the storm," he said. "There are a lot of people who want to start their own business on a shoestring. That doesn't always work."
Back to the future?
Zach Wehr wondered aloud if the time is right for places like the West End, pointing out that big-box stores drove out local businesses, and now the internet is hurting big-box stores. Maybe consumers are realizing they need to support their local businesses, rather than always looking for the cheapest deal or the most convenient location.
Hansen is hopeful the EDA's new loan and grant program will encourage building owners to start their own businesses in the West End or consider selling to inspired entrepreneurs who want to tap into the potential of the historic area.
She compared it to the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Duluth, which has been transformed by craftspeople, brewers and restaurateurs with the help of a city-run loan program. Since 2015, at least 14 businesses have opened in Lincoln Park.
The Cloquet EDA hopes to see the same kind of buy-in here.
"Public investment alone will not ensure redevelopment success," Bjerkness said. "It requires a strong private-public partnership and tools to attract new business."
Hansen talked more specifically.
"Our program will assist with the purchase of commercial property in the West End business district and Dunlap Island," Hansen said, "but the building must be owner occupied to be eligible."
"We believe this district has a lot of viability and it's a beautiful area of the city," she said, adding that the EDA has money available for anyone who qualifies.
Hansen also said there are other low-interest gap loan programs through the EDA that can help landlords.
Anyone interested in more details about the West End loan and grant programs can learn more at cloquet.mn.us under "Advance the West End Loan Program" or by contacting Hansen at Cloquet City Hall at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 218-879-2507 ext. 4.