No Salvation in the East

It’s not hard to recall all the headlines of Mankato’s miraculous growth over the past few years.  They were everywhere. We were told we had low unemployment and that the city was growing despite a lot of fundamental problems. Today, we’re still in pretty good shape. Check out the Greater Mankato Growth Blog’s (GMG) Q4 article (keep in mind their job is to promote  Mankato commerce, not that that’s bad) and FRED data saying wages are up.  

But there is a problem with our current pattern of development (not just in Mankato).  We continually seeking growth, even though “growth” is seldom defined. A new school on the edge of town with zero walkability? Great! It’s Growth! A million-dollar extension of Adams Street to open up land we don’t need? Great! It’s Growth! Another chain restaurant with a 20-year lifespan? Great! It’s Growth!

The Mankato Free Press recently reported on the city’s big push east. We are going to start adding infrastructure in hopes of eventually conquering Eagle Lake and turning them into subjects of the greater Mankato empire. The article says somewhere around $16M in new roads are coming to the east side. There was one very troubling paragraph in the article however:

There are no current plans for private development in 2017 along the new stretch of Adams, but Hentges said a developer is very interested in the Adams/County Road 12 area to serve the heavy semi traffic on Highway 14 and at the nearby Wal-Mart distribution center.”

“A developer”;as in, “one developer is interested in one spot along the Adams Street extension. I’ve summarized in the picture below:

EDIT: Someone at GMG pointed out that this land is not actually ready to roll as there is no water (and sewer?) This is correct, I didn’t mean to mislead. The point is that we at least have a road already in place. It’s more like “more ready to roll.”

This isn’t really the worst part of the project, though. They are adding this land “because jobs” and I understand the politics that go along with that (see national election); however, we’re not really hurting for space in Mankato.

In the article, Lord Hentges says, “They always make room for businesses that provide jobs.” Are we forgetting that we have close to 120 ACRES of undeveloped land just along Victory Drive? The room for light industrial is there and evident to anyone that makes Menards runs.

What we continually fail to keep in mind is that infrastructure is forever. You generally don’t shrink your liabilities unless something cataclysmic happens to your city, (e.g. Detroit).

But while cities continue to make new room for businesses, the economy has been suffering  a wave of retail closings. Recently, we’ve seen Sears, Gander Mountain and Gordman’s all announce the shuttering of stores. It seems likely that  J.C. Penny (a corporation that has been struggling for years) will follow, along with other retailers around town. We have an almost completely abandon block along Madison Avenue between Star St. and Basset St. (block where Mexican Villa(ge) used to be.)

The point is: we’re adding to our  underfunded or unfunded – liabilities in order to develop land land we dont actually need.

This will in no way benefit the city in the long run.

More than enough space exists in Mankato to house all of the current demand.If–and this is a big “if”–we need more land in the future, then we can talk about extending infrastructure.

Additionally, I’d also ask the council and city staff to  realize that automation is real and will likely start taking away industrial jobs sooner than you think.

“Room for 2,500 homes”

Out of all the assertions, is the stupidest: We’re anticipating “room” for 2,500 new homes. For a bit of context, Mankato grew by about 7,000 people from 1990 to 2010 (about 350 people or 1% a year). I understand that it’s accurate to forecast in growth for the region, because well, literally every country on earth is growing to some degree or another, but that doesn’t mean we need this much more land.

Right now, homeownership is still taking a beating compared to historic norms (which in itself is suspect, but I won’t get into that now). Here’s the FRED data for Minnesota over the past 15 years.

The future, however, might be a bit different. Estimates suggest that Gen Z actually wants to buy homes (keep in mind a lot of the estimates seem to come from special interest research though) This is, regardless of your feelings on home ownership, a good thing as we may be facing another housing crisis from Baby Boomers trying to sell off their plastic dollhouses.

However, even if we Gen Z will boost demand in housing, this is still 1) Way too early to prepare (Gen Z isn’t even done being born yet) and 2) Way too much additional land. Between Mankato and North Mankato, there’s plenty of room to fit in all the housing for at least the next ten years. ( Look at a map of Upper North if you don’t believe me.)

The Elephant in the Room

Here’s where I get on my soapbox. You can call me a traitor to Mankato if you want, or you can nod along in silence.

Mankato has a problem that its not addressing: wages. We are doubling down on blue-collar work that could very well become extinct. Likewise, white-collar work in town, say creative or financial industries, just simply doesn’t pay enough. We know this, we can get denial from those at the top, but everyone in my generation on the ground floor knows that people are underpaid in Mankato.

This has far reaching effects, I know plenty of people that have left the Mankato area because of the lack of opportunity and the lack of upward mobility.

Anecdotally, I can tell you that Mankato is at great risk of becoming a “just another midwestern town,” indistinguishable from Gary, IN or Sioux City, IA. My neighbors (I live in Lower North) have said that they refused to live on top of the hill because everything was so “generic.” In a similar vein, my brother refers to Mankato as the “City of Buffalo Wild Wings.” If this reputation becomes widespread, it will hurt us in bringing in new talent.

To combat this our true focus should be within the valley, it’s the most economically productive part of the city, it’s the most interesting part of the city and it’s going to be the main draw for Mankato in the future. We’ve had great success in the last few years downtown. We had the rebuilding of Front Street and we are now looking at removing a lane of traffic in Old Town while simultaneously widening sidewalks.

If I wanted big box stores with generic junk and microwaved food, I could live pretty much anywhere. But I don’t. I want to feel like I’m from Mankato. I want to take people downtown and say “look.”

If we invest in what makes our city unique, we will attract the talent and companies that will make the city better for everyone, not just the landlords and franchise owners. The Adams St. extension is just more of the same.

Very few people are dismayed by the “shiny and new” aspect of a city. If a new building is built, the public generally believes that this a good thing. The economy must be doing well enough to support “more.” However, as with all elected officials, its up to them to advocate for and execute the things that might not be popular, but better for the city in the long run. We’re not doing that. 

We don’t need more room, we need a city that lasts. A city that we can come back to and repurpose over and over again while still making fiscal sense. Edge of town development doesn’t do that, it favors quick gains over long term, meaningful investments. We need something that gets better with age, like fine wine. Right now we’re opting for Franzia.

The cover photo for this article is a shot of Hilltop Mankato from Sept. 1950 superimposed with all our “growth.”

Thanks for sticking with me through the “great silence.” I appreciate your support of this blog and my ideas. I’m hoping to bring you new and better content in 2017.


About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.