Willmar, Olivia look to brighten up downtowns with the arts

Arts downtown

WILLMAR—The cities of Olivia and Willmar hope the Artists on Main Street program will bring new excitement to their downtowns, which have seen significant changes and challenges in the last several years.

“We will be able to use art as a problem solver. We can use art to confront some of those challenges downtown, the perception of downtown,” said Sarah Swedburg, Willmar city planner and the coordinator for the city’s newly re-established Minnesota Main Street program.

Susie Lang, incoming Main Street coordinator for Olivia, is also excited to have a successful program available to help Olivia’s involvement in Main Street get off to a good start.

It can “really put some power behind our first projects,” Lang said. “It is so cool it is not just one lump of money, but a couple of years.”

Minnesota Main Street provides access to resources and networking opportunities, training and tools to reinvigorate commercial districts.

Artists on Main Street is part of the overall Minnesota Main Street program, run by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota in partnership with Springboard for the Arts and funded by the Bush Foundation. In its second year, the artists program is looking to expand on its success last year, when it helped Faribault, Mankato and Winona with a variety of different art projects and events. Willmar, Olivia, Northfield and Wabasha were invited to join the program this year.

“There is a lot of evidence we will see some really cool ripple effects from this,” Swedburg said.

Artists on Main Street is a two-year program which provides participating cities with not only funds, but also training and resources to help create art-based physical, economic and social solutions for their downtowns. In the first year, Willmar and Olivia will each receive $20,000, with another $10,000 in the second year to help fund the projects.

“We see this as a great opportunity to support artists as leaders in their communities and to show how art and culture can be an important part of efforts led by local Main Street programs, cities, economic development authorities and Chambers of Commerce throughout the region,” said Erik Takeshita, portfolio director for community creativity at the Bush Foundation, in a news release announcing the selection of Willmar and Olivia.

Lang and Swedburg will both attend a Nov. 30 meeting with fellow Artists on Main Street communities, both new and old, as a first step.

“We will get to see what worked, hear their tales of caution,” Lang said.

Swedburg said Willmar’s plan is to also hold workshops in the community, to bring people together, gather information and start sharing ideas. The hope is to start actual projects in May.

The region Olivia and Willmar call home has a very active and vibrant arts community and both cities hope those artists, no matter their specialty, will want to be involved. Projects are not limited to murals or sculptures: They could also be events such as a poetry reading, a drama production or a concert.

“We provide the what, the artists provide the how,” Swedburg said. “I would like to see way out-of-the-box thinking.”

Willmar has been a designated Minnesota Main Street city for many years, but it is only recently that city staff has taken over the program and is working to bring some upgrades to downtown. Being part of the Artists on Main Street should help with that.

“It was a good boost for us, to have this tangible program to start with,” Swedburg said.

Olivia’s journey to becoming a designated Main Street city is still ongoing, but the discussions about what to do downtown started a few years ago. When the city became aware of Minnesota Main Street, it seemed like exactly what the city was seeking.

“It is a program that aligned so well with what we had been talking about,” Olivia City Administrator Dan Coughlin said.

This past year has been a challenge for downtown Olivia, as it has lost Olivia Drug and Page Snyder Drug, and Olivia Hardware is soon to close. Minnesota Main Street and its Artists on Main Street program arrived at the perfect time as the city tries to lift itself back up.

“The timing couldn’t have been better. We can’t just sit and do nothing,” Lang said.

Willmar and Olivia want the Artists on Main Street program to bring people back downtown, to create a destination year-round for residents and visitors alike.

“I hope our community brings the arts to the forefront, show that art can drive the community,” Lang said. “I want people to get involved, be willing to take a chance.”

West Central Tribune by Shelby Lindrud

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