Preserving the community's history is a key goal in the revitalization of downtown Spring Valley. That was the consensus of businesspeople and building owners that attended two public meetings last week on planning and design for downtown.

Both meetings were well-attended, filling the public meeting room of the library, with a good representation of business people that offered several ideas to Teresa McCormack of The Urban Studio in Rochester, which is coordinating the process for the Spring Valley Economic Development Authority (EDA).

Daryl Boettcher, also known as The Salsa Guy, said he would like to see the tin and metal stripped away from the fronts of buildings to reveal the "heritage" of downtown. Others attending the first meeting on Wednesday, primarily owners of buildings on the north side of downtown, agreed with his assessment.

"Keep it as historical as we can because that is the beauty of downtown," said Julie Mlinar of the Spring Valley Historical Society when asked for her perspective at the end of the meeting.

Troy Meisner, co-owner of the recently opened Minnesota Joe's, wondered if there could be a coordinated effort to highlight the prior history of buildings, perhaps through posters individualized to each building that detail the former uses or looks of a particular structure.

The driving force behind the strong interest in downtown revitalization is the possibility of a small cities block grant that would help provide funds for improvements with a portion of low interest loans forgiven if the owner maintains possession for seven years. The determination if the city receives the funds won't be made until June, but Spring Valley did make the first cut and Spring Valley economic development director Cathy Enerson is optimistic that it is in a good position to make the final list.

Enerson has packaged several additional funding sources, including 1 percent interest loans from the EDA's revolving loan fund targeted to downtown projects and 2 percent interest loans from the Greater Minnesota Housing Finance Authority to use for rental housing units above commercial space.

She also lined up funds to bring in The Urban Studio for the planning and design - to form a shared vision with local businesspeople on how a transformed downtown would look. Spring Valley Public Utilities, Spring Valley EDA, Spring Valley Area Community Foundation and AgStar for Rural America have all contributed to make this portion of the project possible.

At the meetings last week, business people shared their plans for individual buildings and also gave input on what they would like to see for downtown as a whole.

The small cities block grant provides funds for exterior improvements, such as painting, siding, tuckpointing, repairing masonry, replacing windows or doors, installing awnings, repairing roofs and installing signs as well as fixing code and safety violations inside, such as faulty wiring, fire exits and handicapped accessibility.

The EDA downtown revolving loan fund will complement the small cities block grant, but also allow funds to be used to improve energy efficiency and for projects in the flood plain. The small cities block grant has more restrictions for buildings located in the flood plain.

During the meetings last week, McCormack told the businesspeople assembled that these types of improvements are a "good investment in the future" and that the strong interest by property owners will make the entire area "more marketable as a downtown."

In looking at downtown as a whole, Loel Wessel, representing Hometown Pride, noted that better signage directing people to downtown would be a plus. He pointed out that the only sign off Highway 63 directing travelers to downtown is on the corner of Main Street, which directs motorists to the wrong end of a one-way street of the primary two-block portion of downtown.

McCormack also reviewed a couple of long-range overall ideas, noting that the city could look at "common spaces" downtown, such as pocket parks or sit-down areas for visitors. These spaces are inviting for visitors, particularly older ones that are a key demographic for local businesses.

However, for now, the consensus of the group was to focus on what they have now and make that better.

McCormack noted that the way the buildings are constructed, the majority of them brick, they are fairly good in energy efficiency. The biggest energy losers are the windows, doors and roofs.

She pointed out that window replacement is fairly easy using something like Marvin windows, which are constructed to fit any size opening. This flexibility means owners won't need a building permit to replace those windows.

Building owners also noted that the 1999 small cities block grant for Spring Valley provided favorable improvements that have lasted over the years. Some of the buildings involved in that project put up custom awnings, something that the others felt would be a good project for this round.

The design team of The Urban Studio would come up with suggestions for height and design features. The team would also make recommendations on signage.

The Urban Studio is compiling information about each building downtown, including the plans for improvements. Staff from the firm could also meet with building owners to aid them in their efforts with this service provided at a reduced rate as part of the project. The next step would be a project planning meeting.

Although there was some concern about the uncertain status of the small cities block grant, Enerson said business owners could begin planning now so they are ready to go if the funds come through.

"The planning meetings had good attendance and sincere interest," said Enerson, who was pleased with the turnout. In addition to improving the commercial buildings, "interest continues for updating apartments and creating living spaces downtown."