Finding the river [UPDATED]Published 11:20am Monday, December 3, 2012 Updated 11:20am Monday, December 3, 2012
The tree-lined, winding swath of land along the Otter Tail River in Fergus Falls from Union Street to the airport on the west end of town is a scenic wonderland.
Yet it is largely inaccessible to the public, and dotted with abandoned structures. While this area appears stagnant, community plans and economic factors may place the waterfront on the verge of a renaissance.
“In our history we looked at rivers for their usefulness, such as generating electricity,” said Gordon Hydukovich, Community Development Director as well as the City Planner and Executive Director of the Port Authority for the City of Fergus Falls. “Now we appreciate the beauty and want to interact with nature, including places to walk, bike and enjoy the river.”
The city completed a comprehensive West Lincoln Land Use Study in 2010, which covers the region along the river, and includes adjacent neighborhoods and businesses along Lincoln Avenue. The study includes land use plans for industrial, commercial and residential scenarios as well as parks and open spaces and transportation, and makes suggestions for features such as different ways to extend the river walk.
But the plan is yet to be implemented.
“We felt it was important to develop a comprehensive plan for the rest of the city,” said Hydukovich. “The rest of the land use plan may affect recommendations in the study.”
Hydukovich adds that continuing the planning process would not prevent the city from looking at individual re-zoning scenarios within the West Lincoln Study areas if there was interest by a developer.
Bruce Fuhrman, principal broker for RE/MAX Realty in Fergus Falls, represents three of the largest parcels — the old mill by the bridge on Union Avenue, and the former Mid-America Dairy site between Buse Street and the river. He is also an ownership partner in an undeveloped 40-acre riverfront parcel near the airport.
“I agree that a comprehensive plan for the rest of the city is a good idea,” said Fuhrman. “It’s more inclusive decision making about what should be done in the area for the best interests of neighborhoods as well as the city.”
Fuhrman adds that while planning continues, he would like to see riverfront access for the public secured, and provided the city with a list of signatures from landowners from the mill to the airport who are willing to negotiate with the city in good faith to provide an easement through their property to extend the existing river walk.
“The most logical time to obtain an easement is when an owner is ready to develop a property,” said city administrator Mark Sievert. “Attaching an easement to a property may hamper an owner’s ability to sell the property. However, at the time of development we can negotiate an easement for public use in exchange for tax increment financing that may help with planning or construction costs.”
Tax increment financing uses the increased property taxes that a new real estate development generates to finance costs of the development during planning and construction.
Sievert acknowledges that while TIF provides an incentive, a developer does not have to provide an easement.
Hydukovich adds that obtaining easements are also a matter of cost.
“If a landowner wants to donate and easement that’s one thing,” said Hydukovich. “Otherwise funds have to come from the city’s capital improvement budget or from grants.”
Private development may be the catalyst to progress on the riverfront. If one of the major properties is developed, such as the old mill or the dairy, Sievert, Hydukovich and Fuhrman all agree it would likely spur development of other parcels. And the time may be ripe for a commercial developer to jump in.
“Development really slowed down with the recession,” said Fuhrman. “But over the past year we’re seeing the number of commercial properties changing hands increasing significantly.”
The real estate market overall is improving in Minnesota, especially in west central Minnesota, with an 18 percent increase in closed sales over this time last year. Meanwhile, real estate inventory is decreasing, making it a more appealing time for new development.
Fuhrman provided a conceptual plan for the former dairy property that includes potential commercial space utilizing existing structures as well as a variety of residential options from lofts and town homes to individual home lots.
“Repurposing the existing building sites is a good idea,” said Hydukovich. “You would never be able to build new construction as close to the river as the existing structures.”
The old mill on the river near Union Street, which Fuhrman also represents for sale, is structurally viable, and could be converted to condominiums or have a mixed use in the building. The panoramic penthouse view would undoubtedly be the best in the city. The iconic building, which is not on the historic register, may still have some historic value as part of the landscape of the town, but preserving the appearance would not hamper a developer’s ability for adaptive re-use.
“Our history is still very close in Fergus Falls,” said OTC Historical Society Executive Director Chris Schuelke. “You can see landmarks from the golden age of the community — it is what makes the town unique. If people can see these as community assets instead of liabilities, they are likely to be the key to unlocking economic development in our community.”
The West Lincoln Plan highlighted the possibilities of a multi-faceted public-inclusive waterfront destination. Strong interest exists in continuing the river walk trail from where it ends on Union, along the river all the way to the airport.
Schuelke said many in the community recognize the need keep connections to the past while moving forward. It’s just a matter of who will jump in the riverfront development first.
“Many other communities are learning how to use resources like their waterfront for economic development,” said Schuelke. “We can in Fergus Falls too.”