After decades of fits and starts, Old Town is shining

·2 min read

Jun. 5—Old Town Mankato has gone through more transformations and ups and downs than can be remembered.

Starting Monday, one of the bigger potential alterations will get a test run for motorists and pedestrians. A demonstration project has been set up between Plum and Rock streets. The four lanes of North Riverfront Drive will be temporarily replaced with three lanes — one lane in each direction and a center lane for left-turning vehicles.

The temporary changes will be in place for 10 months to see how the concept works and to get public input.

If it works and permanent changes are made, it will offer wider sidewalks, more green space, public art and a more pleasant and safer experience for pedestrians.

There have been plenty of skeptics of the idea, many arguing that one driving lane in each direction won't work well in the heavily traveled thoroughfare.

But it may well work fine. The current left lanes in each direction are kind of useless. Most drivers get into the right lanes because they don't want to get stuck behind people stopped to turn left. And there is more risk of rear-end crashes in the left lanes.

The traffic changes — which could become permanent in a couple of years — come at a high point for the Old Town neighborhood.

For decades, the commercial strip had more downs than ups. Shops came and went, and there were plenty of empty and run-down buildings dotting the stretch.

One of the fixtures of Old Town was for 34 years Harpies' Bazaar. It was a destination point that sold unique imported home decor, glassware and gifts. But with more stores like Pier 1 Imports and the love affair shoppers had with malls at the time, Harpies' saw sales dwindle and it closed in 2005.

It was a blow to an area where a group of shop owners worked to gain traction.

But now the strip is bustling with entrepreneurs and businesses. New shops regularly open and buildings aren't just renovated; new buildings have replaced some old but non-historic buildings.

Ironically, the malls and big boxes and chain stores that hammered small shops are now on the ropes. And while Amazon and other online retailers cut into many bricks-and-mortar stores, many of the small, owner-operated shops in Old Town and elsewhere haven't been battered so hard.

Yes, people like the ease of Amazon, but they also like to get out and do some browsing at stores, particularly small boutiques and other shops that can carve out a niche and offer a nice shopping experience.

We will find out soon whether the new traffic-flow idea works well. Hopefully it will. It would add a lot to the Old Town neighborhood.

After decades of fits and starts, Old Town is back.

Tim Krohn can be contacted at tkrohn@mankatofreepress.com or 507-720-1300.