Commercial redevelopment in Two Harbors appears to be having a catalyst effect on the community, leading to practically unprecedented business growth. For years, empty storefronts have been a poorly heeded battlecry for development – until now.
“Big investment is being made in our town right now, and it’s really exciting,” said Two Harbors Mayor Chris Swanson.
Right on Highway 61, the main thoroughfare through town, the iconic Lou’s Fish is thriving after a major overhaul last year, Bee’s Knees gift shop moved into the landmark rock shop, a new cafe just opened where a thrift shop closed several years ago and a former fitness center is in the process of being made over into a retail shop.
There are so many commercial properties being developed, or renovated, that Swanson says he loses track of them all. By his count, there are very few retail options left open to new business and practically no industrial space available.
Moving toward old downtown, Two Harbors’ new indoor-outdoor performance arts center is being planned, and nearly a dozen businesses have either very recently been renovated, expanded, or are in the process. From Castle Danger Brewery’s wildly popular facility, to food, hardware and retail of many types, Two Harbors clearly is busy growing.
“If you look at the last two or three years, it’s through the roof with businesses renovating, and people are looking for new business options,” Swanson said.
Arts and beautification is a theme that Swanson puts at the top of his priority list, believing that a well-cared for environment generates pride in its residents, and attracts visitors and businesses. To that end, the city of Two Harbors has just increased its revolving loan fund for storefront renovation from $15,000 to $30,000 with just a 3 percent interest rate to encourage more improvements.
“I think there’s a hope and an optimism in Two Harbors that came from many different things, but one is the Blandin Foundation invested a lot in the community leadership program over five years ago. That partnership has been a big deal for us,” Swanson said.
A member of the third cohort of participants in Blandin’s leadership series, Swanson believes the program helped synthesize good ideas and hone leadership skills.
With an infusion of new leaders throughout the city, county and business community, Swanson says new people have energized the discussion on community growth. He also credits the cityfor undertaking a massive capital improvement plan. It’s infusing millions of dollars into the city’s roads, adding to the energy.
“I hear from people a sense of optimism coming from the investment being made, and from the city saying we want to empower people with a great idea by putting wind in their sails. There’s a real vibrancy here that is helping us be known as one of the most entrepreneurial cities in Minnesota,” said Swanson.
The excitement of heading into uncharted territory as an entrepreneur is part of what is driving the redevelopment of a property in historic downtown Two Harbors for Chrissy Scandin.
Two Harbors has never had an official event planning business before, and Scandin has set her sights on changing that by opening Northern Nights. In tandem with a hair salon, Scandin has a well-developed business plan that has equal parts trying her hand at something novel and keeping her business on solid ground with the familiar.
Thirteen years experience as a hair stylist led to the salon side of the shop called Dept. Two. A name begging for an explanation also reveals Scandin’s deeply held feelings about opening up shop on the block that harkens her back to childhood.
Scandin has personal ties to the building next door to her new property. Her mother first worked at the town’s department store, then eventually came to own Laura Lee Department store.
“I liked the old department store. My mom started working there while she was in high school and took it over in the ‘90s and was there for over 25 years. I want to help revive downtown and make it like when I was a child,” said Scandin.
Hoping to have her renovations completed in time to open her doors in August, Scandin already has a wedding plan and a fundraiser on her schedule. Her recent experience working at Glensheen with private event planning spurred her to bring luster back to her hometown.
“I fell in love with the idea of events planning, and want to plan weddings, fundraisers and even fun activities for locals and out-of-town people,” said Scandin.
Working with the University of Minnesota - Duluth’s Center for Economic Development and their Small Business Development Center program contributed greatly toward Scandin’s success.
Beyond that, she said she drew confidence from the Entrepreneur Fund’s Women’s Business Alliance.
“The Women’s Business Alliance gave me fantastic encouragement. There are a lot of women out there like me with great ideas who are way too intimidated to take chances,” said Scandin. “I hope I can inspire some women to move forward with chasing their dreams.”
The Application Fund within IRRR is playing a role of adding wind to businesses sails in Two Harbors. According to Whitney Ridlon, IRRR’s community development representative, the small grant program offers a pathway to grant writing expertise that can be invaluable.
“Telling your story so that it aligns with grant criteria is integral to getting a grant with so many different sources going after the same money,” said Ridlon.
In this case, the Application Fund paid half the cost to hire a professional grant writer to help Lake County Housing and Redevelopment Authority and the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency obtain significant funding for commercial redevelopment.
Ridlon said grant writers are hard to come by, especially for small communities. Last year, IRRR budgeted $30,000 to assist in hiring grant writers and plans internal capacity building workshops for municipalities and non-profits.
The end result was a $777,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development through its Small City Development Program for rehabilitation of both commercial and residential properties in Two Harbors.
Scott Zahorik, AEOA’s director of housing services, says that letters of interest have been accepted, and he is hopeful that projects will still get off the ground by this fall.
“About six commercial projects in Two Harbors will be able to use $38,500 for rehabilitation, with property owners paying 20 percent of their projects through other funding,” Zahorik said.
The five-year deferred loans totaling $231,000 will have the liens removed from their mortgages as long as ownership is maintained throughout that period.