Red Wing, Minn Writes an Rx for Business: Complete Streets

Today’s post was written by Jason Frantz, an intern with the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC). RTC is a nonprofit organization that works to create a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors to build healthier places for healthier people. The below story will join numerous other resources and case studies in support of RTC’s Campaign for Active Transportation.

Downtown Red Wing. Photo: Ian Anderson,
Downtown Red Wing. Photo: Ian Anderson,

Red Wing, Minnesota has a problem. No, its famous shoe company isn’t shutting down. But its charming and historic downtown, nestled between a scenic bluff and the Mississippi River, is losing out to traffic. Red Wing’s economic vitality has been sapped from decades of competition with what locals call the “Mall Area” — an outsized expanse of suburban sprawl.

“Like many towns, the downtown has done many things to try and reinvigorate itself; however it keeps running into that competition,” laments Randal Hemmerlin, director of the Red Wing Housing and Redevelopment Authority. He bolsters his contention by citing the fact that only 8 of 596 new single family homes built in Red Wing over the past ten years have been built in the downtown area.

A quest for fresh ideas compelled Mr. Hemmerlin to pursue a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota grant that ultimately sent him to a cycling seminar in Seattle. “There were a lot of good things going on to bring back to Red Wing,” he notes. One of those good things was the trainers at the National Center for Bicycling and Walking.

NCBW staff were brought in to advise downtown boosters in Red Wing about an active transportation approach to revitalization. They attended planning commission meetings, spoke on the radio, and met with local leaders and the state DOT to promote their message. “We really used them well,” says Hemmerlin.

Following the visit, Red Wing civic leaders took it upon themselves to sponsor a two-day Complete Streets policy workshop with the assistance of Blue Cross Blue Shield and expert consultants from the National Complete Streets Coalition. The first day was scheduled to be open to the public while the second brought together professional stakeholders. “We had a very good meeting the night before and the following day we had 28 business and community leaders assembled for this policy workshop,” recalls Hemmerlin. These leaders included the mayor, port authority officials, and the schools superintendent, as well as the community’s transportation professionals. The workshop led to the creation of a steering committee with the goal of developing a Complete Streets policy for the City of Red Wing.

Key to the planning process was a series of focus group studies to determine what keeps residents away from downtown in the first place. One of the largest concerns expressed was the hostile traffic environments on Main and Plum Streets — known more commonly, and aptly perhaps, as Highways 61 and 58. Over the years these became rumbling automobile corridors, replete with speeding tractor trailers, which discouraged elderly residents and children from even crossing the street. Residents liked the idea of shopping downtown, but Red Wing was unlikely to develop a critical mass of walkers given these conditions. Even for those arriving by car, NCBW’s Bob Chauncey noted, “nobody window shops at 40 miles an hour.”

“The [city] council said we needed to get the public more aware before we go and get this policy set in place,” notes Hemmerlin. The planning department had to spend time getting word out about proposed bicycle and pedestrian improvements in the historic downtown, and their benefits. Given momentum the committees built, it was only a matter of time before Red Wing could officially begin to take on its downtown problem. The effort and preparation invested in the matter bore fruit in January 2011, when the Red Wing City Council passed a Complete Streets resolution unanimously by a vote of 7-0.

A sense of duty to Red Wing’s significant 65-and-over set underlines Hemmerlin’s work: “We know from talking to our elderly population that everything we do is good for them, they are walking to the grocery store or walking to the café and appreciate the idea that [they] can get there more easily.”

One vital aspect is increasing the availability of downtown housing to support a walkable, bikeable economy. Currently the Housing Authority is working with a developer to bring 24 units downtown. Since the resolution passed, the city was also able to win a grant bringing 25 new bike racks to several downtown locations. Tourism is getting attention too, with new signage directing visitors from downtown to the 20-mile Cannon Valley rail-trail hugging the Mississippi. In a town like Red Wing, these small improvements are major milestones.

Red Wing’s problem remains, with the “Mall Area” still dominating economic and residential life, but with a Complete Streets policy in hand, civic leaders are committed to a solution that involves reclaiming their streets as an important part of this community’s health.

Red Wing has written itself a prescription that will enhance its foot-friendliness. Isn’t that just fitting?

Red Wing, with a population of just north of 16,000, is a great example of a small town adopting a Complete Streets policy as a key part of its efforts to improve public health, economic investment, and quality of life. To date, nearly 1 in 5 communities with a Complete Streets policy is a town outside urban areas. A new supplement (.pdf) to our Rural Areas and Small Towns fact sheet shows how varied communities with Complete Streets policies are and provides several short examples of these smaller and more rural areas.

Complete Streets