Letter from the Editor

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Development - this time it's real!

Storm Lake has been on the verge of the anticipated big boom for as long as I can remember.

First, an imaginative plan was drawn to enclose Lake Avenue downtown into a glass megamall back when that was the vogue. It was going to draw all kinds of new business and people to town. Downtown was where it all was going to happen. Hope you didn't bet the farm on that particular development.

Next, IBP came to town to fill the void left by the old Hy-Grade, and all kinds of industrial wonders were supposedly going to follow it to make Storm Lake a cutting-edge manufacturing mecca. The industrial park was going to be where it all was going to happen. The plant brought its share of good and bad on the town, but it wasn't the boom that we expected when we trotted out that brass band.

BVU set out to build the underground Forum, and all kinds of amazing high-tech businesses and brilliant new residents were going to flock in. The college area of town was where it all was going to happen. The Forum was a grand achievement, but it didn't change Storm Lake as was anticipated.

Next up, the Highway 71 bypass. Storm Lake bought the DOT's line that it was going to change everything and have new stores and jobs flocking to the roadside. The highway 71 corridor was going to be where it all was going to happen. We even planned out a system of "pods" to try to control the rampant development we were sure was about to overrun us. Hasn't exactly happened that way.

Finally, Super Wal-Mart was going to change everything. All kinds of stores and new jobs were going to follow it and line the road for as far as they eye could see, we were just sure. North Lake was where it all was going to happen. Wal-Mart is a success, to be sure, but I think we had more shopping choices before it first came to town than after.

Now, with Project AWAYSIS, we again expect new business and new jobs to follow. The difference is, it's really happening. Walgreens would be a big deal downtown, Ace Hardware is a big deal to the North, Jim Bauer has a nice development going in on Milwaukee, other new businesses are coming or considering, and existing ones are moving or expanding all over town. We're even thinking of turning old schools into new developments.

So, unlike all of the times we crowed of a boom before, we really have the opportunity today. And unlike before, we really will have to plan what do with it.

While in the past we have had to beg and plead for any form of business or industry we could possibly get, we now have an opportunity to define and target those we want. To possibly fill in gaps in goods and services, pitch those that tend to be attractive, good corporate citizens and offer good jobs.

There will be challenges. As I look at the estimates for new jobs, it occurs to me that if they are correct, we don't have the housing to put them in. This may be one of the next big issues in Storm Lake, and it may take both some creativity and incentives to achieve our goals. (Along with possibly some aggressive attempts at the annexation issue that has largely been just talk for a good decade now.)

AWAYSIS will attract tourism, but to leverage it, we can't stop when construction is done. We need businesses and services that will provide additional things to do to make Storm Lake a vacation stop. Music, antiques, family activities, recreation, culture. A theater with more and newer movies, as our local company has done in Spencer and Spirit Lake already.

We can grow from within, as well. If we keep more of our young people after college, our population will naturally grow as their families do. Attracting franchises from outside is super, but so will be incubating them from within to fill our needs.

It's not just a load for elected officials to carry, either. All of us will need to contribute ideas and enthusiasm for our community. Don't sit around and fret about whether enough people will come to AWAYSIS - invite people! Bring the family reunion, the holiday gathering, the organization meeting here. Keeping our own properties nice to look at is a factor as well, and so is the way we treat visitors when they come.

AWAYSIS won't change everything unless we use it to full advantage, and that means being a welcoming, creative and active community with a real plan for what we want to achieve.

Where do we want to grow retail? Where do we want to develop housing? Tourism? What do we want our community to be a generation from now? As we have learned, we can't always predict or determine development, but our little history lesson of opportunism shows us that we have the best chance to guide our own destiny in these areas that we have had in memory.

I suspect, in large part, that our thinking will guide us back to where we began this little tale of ambition - downtown.

Aside from the Cobblestone, we have little lakefront area to develop. Business may go in all directions, but the downtown is still the heart of Storm Lake. It needs quirky little shops and trendy little restaurants, street musicians and artists and snowcones and cool lighting, displays and festivals, maybe a trolley and something positive in the old depot and year-around happenings at Santa's Castle. Attractive apartments upstairs filling in any vacant, dirty windows.

Remember when the sidewalks downtown used to be full of strolling shoppers? That's not so true anymore. Interesting stores have given way to service businesses and offices, which are fine, but they don't bring strollers. This too should be part of our plan - areas where office development is encouraged, and areas we would really like to see stay in retail, entertainment and food.

We will come full circle, I think. Making strides on the AWAYSIS lakefront, industrial park, university campus and north business area - all working together to make Storm Lake a booming community. And in a nice way, all sort of leading us back to where it all started... in the heart of things.