FARIBAULT — Nort Johnson grew up a couple of blocks off Faribault's historic district. Back in the 1970s, downtown business in the Rice County city was thriving: flower shops and bakeries, a camera shop and a dress shop and three pharmacies, all in an idyllic, walkable downtown.
But after Johnson graduated in 1982 and moved away, forces picked at Faribault's historic district. First it was shopping malls. Then came big-box stores closer to highways, which tried to capture every shopping dollar. When Johnson returned to his hometown 15 years ago, the historic district still had the bones of a nostalgic, thriving small town: the century-old buildings on the five-block strip, its proximity to the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail and the 743-acre River Bend Nature Center, the reliable gathering spot of the Depot Bar and Grill.
But to Johnson, something felt lacking.
Not so today. Faribault's historic district serves as a model on moving a downtown strip into the future while paying homage to the past.
"Downtown Faribault is such a great example of a district that's changing to fit the desires of folks who want experiential shopping, ethnic stores, entertainment, activities," said Johnson, the president and CEO of the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce. "It's almost come full circle."
As the city has gained in population — it's grown by nearly 50% since Johnson graduated in 1982, to 24,000 — the historic downtown has experienced a renaissance.
Since 2018, the downtown business district has added 17 businesses. More than $12 million in public and private funds has been invested into downtown buildings, from new roofs and sprinkler systems to two new apartment buildings.
The past three years have seen Faribault Main Street and the Faribault Economic Development Authority award $75,000 in micro-grants to 21 recipients. The micro-grants help businesses open or expand and have gone toward everything from an industrial-grade coffee roaster to new signage for the Cardboard Vault collectibles store to building a second outdoor patio at Corks & Pints wine bar and tap house.
The key to the revitalization, though, is that the infusion of new is done in concert with the old.
"It's all still this historic downtown," said Faribault Mayor Kevin Voracek. "It hasn't been bulldozed and rebuilt."
That's crucial for the second-largest historic district in Minnesota, after St. Paul. Many of these downtown buildings, all two or three stories high, date back to the 1880s, when the milling industry brought significant wealth to this strip along the Straight River. The massive gray stones that comprise many of these historic buildings came from a quarry west of Faribault and give downtown distinct character.
The city lays claim to plenty of nostalgic Americana. The city's iconic business is the Faribault Woolen Mill, founded in 1865 then revived a decade ago and turned into a thriving, modern business. The Tilt-A-Whirl amusement park ride was invented here in 1926 and is still manufactured and repaired here, and the city installs two Tilt-A-Whirl cars on the downtown strip in summer for photo opportunities.
But there's perhaps no better metaphor for the embrace of new amid old than in the loft-style apartments that have popped up on upper floors of downtown storefronts. The town has more than two dozen loft-style apartment units in its historic district, with eight more currently under construction. Renters have gobbled them up.
The diversity of entertainment options has catered to young professionals who want the loft lifestyle but outside the Twin Cities. The Paradise Center for the Arts offers theater and live music. Among downtown's businesses are a distillery and cocktail lounge, a Crooked Pint Ale House, a slew of restaurant options from Mexican to steakhouses, and a dozen or so African businesses from Faribault's growing Somali community. As of 2019, more than 14% of Faribault residents were born outside the United States.
The future could be even brighter, with a new $5 million park planned to open in a few years that'll give downtown an outdoor gathering space.
"You can't replicate that feeling," said Kelly Nygaard, the chamber's Main Street coordinator and tourism director. "You hit downtown, it's so much more than you'd ever realize just driving by."