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Change Agents: Princeton Mayor Paul Whitcomb (left) chats with MDT volunteers Christina Wagner, David Patten and Bruce Koprucki at the K-Bob Cafe.

Designing Change

Since it opened for business in 1958, Ossell’s Fine Apparel in Princeton has been a mainstay of this town of almost 4,700 residents situated at the confluence of the Rum River and its west branch.

Selling anything from bras to tuxedos, the store also is the place in town to buy “Tigers” sweatshirts and other spirit wear, which promote Princeton’s schools sports teams. Town pride also is on display at the K-Bob Cafe, the meeting place for the Lions and Rotary clubs, where locals and visitors can feast on homestyle frittatas, patty melts and sweet slices of pecan cream pie. A block away, Princeton Book & Bible attracts visitors from across the region who come to browse the shop’s extensive collection of religious-themed literature and collectibles.

But a walk down Rum River Drive shows that Princeton, like many small towns across Central Minnesota, is struggling to support its downtown. Too many storefronts—including buildings that used to house the Thrifty White Pharmacy and a Ben Franklin—are empty and sometimes unkempt. “People used to shop locally,” said Carol Ossell, who owns Ossell’s with her husband, Charlie. “But even though we’ve done everything possible to market our store, we have more people from out of town interested in our business than the people who live here.”

That’s not to suggest Princeton residents are indifferent to their downtown’s predicament. In fact, the town has commissioned several studies in the last decade to jump start the revitalization of its Main Street. Several volunteer groups have been working to spruce up Rum River Drive and help Princeton capitalize on its riverfront location, which could become a regional destination for recreational activities, including biking and canoeing.

“Princeton is an amazing community, nestled along the Rum River and boosted by a strong sense of community pride,” said Michelle Kiley, community and economic development specialist at the Initiative Foundation. “But the town was searching for a way to unify ideas and visualize the city as they continue to transform concepts into projects.”

UnifiedVision

What Princeton needed was a fresh set of eyes. To get them, Princeton community leaders turned to the Initiative Foundation, which recommended and helped fund a visit from the Minnesota Design Team (MDT), a group of volunteer architects, landscape architects, urban planners, tourism advisers and other community experts. Sponsored by the Minnesota branch of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), MDT works with towns across the state for three-day weekends where, after extensive input from the community, they analyze a community’s strengths and challenges to determine a unified vision of priorities for improvement. “We support MDT because we want to help rural communities improve their built environments,” said Mary Larkin, communications director of AIA Minnesota. “That takes so many different forms, depending on the community.”

To prepare for the visit, Princeton community members filled out an extensive questionnaire detailing the town’s strengths and its challenges and recruited host families to house team members. They also put together a roster of speakers to give short presentations on different aspects of the town, including the schools, government, arts, recreation and Princeton history. “The Minnesota Design Team visit provided many community members an avenue to share their thoughts about the community and what they envision it evolving to,” said Richard Baker, Mille Lacs County community development coordinator. “Instead of just a few community leaders, there were many individuals discussing, essentially, several ideas that have been discussed for years. This not only confirmed the importance of these projects, but also provided some new insight into them.”

One of those community members was landscape architect David Patten, who also served on the design team. “I grew up here,” Patten said. “And I thought that as a professional in the field, I owed it to my community to volunteer.”

We The People

An MDT visit is intense and there’s little downtime for any of the volunteers. It starts with a Thursday night dinner, with plenty of time leftover to talk informally with host families about their take on their community. Friday is spent gathering information from speakers and going on walking tours of the downtown and driving tours of the surrounding area. Friday evening is devoted to a community-wide dinner, where attendees are encouraged to voice what they think the town’s priorities should be through a process called “dotmocracy.” Each priority is written on a sheet of paper and the pages are posted throughout the room. Using the dotmocracy approach, each community member is asked to place sticker “dots” next to their favorite initiatives.

Saturday is a workday for the team—a flurry of processing ideas, prioritizing and then making the best come to life with architectural drawings. These ideas are presented in a final community meeting on Saturday night.

It’s a grueling but exhilarating process. MDT agreed with community members that Princeton has many assets, including its location along the Highway 169 and 95 corridors—an easy stop for people who are driving north to their cabins and want to grab a cup of coffee or a meal. With historic buildings, including the Great Northern Depot and several storefronts along Rum River Drive, the town, 50 miles north of the Twin Cities and 30 miles east of St. Cloud, could be a popular day trip destination.

Most of all, Princeton has the Rum River, which has almost limitless opportunities for recreation, including bike trails, canoeing, fishing and camping. “If you take a look at the recreational trails in Minnesota, there are a lot up north and many in the St. Cloud area and southern Minnesota,” said Patten. “Princeton is right in the center and could become a hub.”

Working Together

As for the challenges, MDT agreed with community members that Rum River Drive is not pedestrian friendly and the entry into the town doesn’t give a warm enough welcome to visitors. And, like other towns that grew up using their rivers more as industrial highways than sources of natural pleasure, Princeton had turned its back on the Rum.

But beyond these physical obstacles, the town had another challenge. “The organizations in the community weren’t connected or working together,” said Christina Wagner, an architect who served as MDT’s co-leader for the visit. While there was no shortage of strategic leadership and truly impressive initiatives, each had their own priorities and weren’t always aware of what the other was doing.

Likewise, residents didn’t always know about the wealth of events taking place in town. “The amount of time people have to interact with the community is limited,” said Bruce Koprucki, a contractor and former city and regional planner from Chaska who was the other Princeton MDT co-leader. He noted that many residents have long commutes to work. “There’s not a lot of time to connect in the evenings as a community.”

Princeton now has an online community calendar that lists not only every gymnastic meet, quilting bee and suicide survivors support group, but also the meetings of the various community groups working to improve the town.

As for other recommendations? Progress is being made on those, too. Princeton is in the process of getting state bike trails to run through town and has applied for a grant to make Rum River Drive more pedestrian friendly. The school district and the city have moved forward on plans to install an electronic messaging board on South Rum River Drive. “I think some of the recommendations were really well thought out,” said Paul Whitcomb, the town’s mayor.

That long-range vision is heartening to MDT volunteers. “Feeling and seeing the passion from that group and trying to come up with a resolution to help them go forward made me feel like we helped,” said Wagner. “When I started with MDT, the question was, ‘Is this really helping a small town?’ That’s always on everyone’s mind. It’s a great challenge, a great puzzle.”

The Initiative Foundation will continue to stay involved with the community—including the chamber, the city, the economic development group and other local civic organizations—to assist in coordinating their work going forward. “Princeton will continue to grow and evolve as the Twin Cities Metropolitan area expands northward and the St. Cloud micropolitan area expands eastward,” said Baker. “It’s exciting to see Princeton working towards these shared goals, and it will be even more exciting, in say 10 years, to see what has been accomplished.”

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