As the concept of walkability becomes more prominent in municipal planning throughout the country, and in greater demand in real estate markets, REALTORS® are on it. In Mankato, Minn., the local REALTORS® sponsored a WalkShop event in Old Town, a district with lots of old charm and a new public amphitheater, but lacking a pedestrian-friendly infrastructure to link the two. A Smart Growth Action Grant helped them make it happen.
Deb Hansen, Chief Executive Officer of the 350-member REALTOR® Association of Southern Minnesota (RASM) explains that the idea for the program was the result of a lot of brainstorming by a REALTOR® committee exploring the Walkscore concept in the context of Mankato, a riverfront community that is perceived as a ‘driving community.’ “Once we discovered the availability of this grant, we decided to focus our efforts on the Old Town district,” she says, citing the advantages of the neighborhood’s vintage main street architecture and an exciting new amphitheater for live performances in the city’s new Riverfront Park, just a block behind the commercial street. The neighborhood came with unique challenges, too: it was heavily industrial, including quarries and a metal scrapyard, and lacked visibility from one point to the next. It also lacked parking. “Our goal was to make this area more accessible, more functional, and more welcoming,” says Hansen.
The grant application process was smooth and easy. “It helped that we’d done our due diligence, and were able to communicate our goals and vision to the REALTOR® Party team,” says Hansen. RASM President Elect Jason Beal, a lifelong Mankato resident, issued personal invitations to numerous local stakeholders to participate in the early June event. The day began with an informal breakfast at a local bakery, where participants could meet and mingle. They included representatives from the City Center Partnership and the Old Town district, the Mankato Council for the Arts, public safety officials, neighboring towns, and a handful of REALTORS®. Then Samantha Thomas, a professional walkability consultant, delivered a presentation on the goals and successes of walkability efforts elsewhere in the country.
“It was fantastic,” says Beal. “Samantha’s presentation broke down the concept of walkability, and showed us what could be done, from huge capital improvements to just striping the streets.” Then the group headed out and toured the area on foot, returning to the bakery to brainstorm ideas in small groups over lunch; Thomas took notes, which informed her written report, delivered a few weeks later. Beal praises Thomas’ positive, can-do tone, and her expertise as she led the walk, measured sidewalks, and pointed out impediments: “It was all about ‘What do we have, and how can we work with it?’ with an emphasis on quality, rather than rushing in to anything.”
For weeks following the event, Hansen received numerous requests for copies of Thomas’ PowerPoint presentation and the report, as well as glowing thanks, like this from a transportation planner from a neighboring jurisdiction:
I really appreciate you hosting the REALTOR® Walkability Event on June 6. That was a great opportunity to gain some perspective on how Mankato could benefit from changes to the pedestrian realm.
According to Beal, the notion of walkability improvements has gained traction in the community: several local organizations are collaborating to create a “Vitality Fund” with a goal to raise $10 million to support local projects over the next 10 to 15 years; the WalkShop report outlines just the kind of improvement they are looking to fund. Meanwhile, the Mankato Council for the Arts is talking about painting alleyway walls in the Old Town corridor with fanciful designs, and RASM is looking into the possibility of securing a REALTOR® Party Placemaking Grant to help the community envision some of the ideas that emerged from the event. “This has generated so much excitement,” says Beal, “and we’re grateful to the REALTOR® Party for providing us with such tremendous practical resources.”
To learn more about how the REALTORS® of Southern Minnesota are using REALTOR® Party resources to help communities work toward improving walkability, contact Chief Executive Officer Deb Hansen at 507-345-6018; or President Elect Jason Beal at 507-381-1060.