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Like most people who live in Hopkins, Mayor Molly Cummings rarely lets a day go by without stopping on Mainstreet, the city's downtown and commercial center. The street, stretching across the suburb, is difficult to avoid.

It's the goal of the Hopkins City Council and local business owners to preserve Mainstreet as one of the most distinctive commercial districts in the Twin Cities. Now they're hoping that new luxury apartments and three nearby stations for the anticipated Green Line light-rail extension will usher in a new era for the district.

"The light rail made it a no-brainer," said Meg Beekman, the city's community development coordinator. "We want to leverage this huge public infrastructure project ... to the benefit of the Hopkins business community and our residents."

Ten core blocks of Mainstreet are home to dozens of small businesses — places like antique stores and clock repair shops, breweries and diners, tailors and art studios. The street is also the heart of the city's entertainment, where most outdoor events and block parties are held.

"The small independent businesses are the backbone of our city and always have been," Cummings said. "It takes the support of the city and our surrounding suburbs ... to keep them going."

In the next few years, major development projects promise to make Hopkins and Mainstreet more populated and accessible.

The Moline, a 241-unit luxury apartment complex, is slated to open a block south of the street this fall.

The city is overhauling 8th Avenue from the Moline complex to Mainstreet, a project it has dubbed "the Artery." The corridor would lead to a Southwest light-rail station across from the Moline, should the line from downtown Minneapolis be built. Three light-rail stations and a maintenance facility are planned for Hopkins.

"It's a lot to absorb," Cummings said, admitting that while the change is exciting, it is also overwhelming.

Beekman said 26,000 people are estimated to ride the train every day, exposing new customers to Mainstreet.

"People say that [Mainstreet] is the hidden gem of the west metro," Beekman said. "Our idea is to unhide it."

Hopkins is different

Several other suburbs, including Eden Prairie, Wayzata and Rosemount, have revitalized their commercial centers in an effort to identify a "downtown." But Mainstreet is different, a representation of Hopkins' self-sustaining personality.

"You can't go in and create a Mainstreet," said Jim Genellie of the Hopkins Historical Society. "You have to have an identity."

Cummings said her favorite spot along the street is Amy's Cupcake Shoppe. Owner Amy Brace opened the bakery last year and now sells about 200 cupcakes a day, each baked according to an original recipe.

The success of her cupcake store is a testament to Brace's craft, but also current tastes and fashions. Mainstreet throughout its history has adjusted its look to reflect the trends of the time.

In the 1930s it had a western character with saloons and shooting ranges, sometimes in the same building. In the '60s, the street embodied the city's reputation as the land of "cars and bars." Genellie, 66, remembers a time when drivers would cruise up and down Mainstreet, showing off their hot rods.

In the final decades of the 20th century, people gravitated to neighboring shopping malls, such as Ridgedale Center in Minnetonka. The city tried to revitalize Mainstreet, narrowing and curving the street to make it more pedestrian-friendly. But the revamp restricted parking; that kept shoppers away, and businesses were shuttered.

The city slowly improved the street's image, straightening it and renovating storefronts. T.J. Malaskee, the executive director for the Hopkins Historical Society, said the City Council's willingness to invest "in the idea of the city" helped Mainstreet survive.

"I think one of the things that makes [Mainstreet] special was that the city tried something new and they failed," he said.

All eyes on Mainstreet

Nowadays, Mainstreet is known for its destination retail stores, home to businesses or services recommended across the Twin Cities.

But don't mistake it for being quirky or quaint. It is best described as utilitarian, offering a fix for every need.

It's what motivated Rob Sheeley to open Mill City Sound, a record store, in 2014. He is expanding the store this year to include tens of thousands of new and used vinyl, using the basement level for collectors to browse through bins.

"I didn't want to be in a strip mall," Sheeley said. "[Mainstreet] feels like home. ... It's a good mix of eclectic shops."

The Hopkins Historical Society is working to relocate to the Albert Pike Masonic Temple on Mainstreet, although the move wouldn't happen until at least next year. "It's a long process, building a museum," Malaskee said.

The Southwest light-rail extension wouldn't open until 2021. Cummings said the light-rail line has encouraged business owners to go to the council with plans to open on Mainstreet.

"I think people are looking ahead and thinking, 'We want to be there when it's ready to go,' " she said.

When it comes to Mainstreet, Cummings said, the city will always favor small businesses over chain stores. "They're not a part of our vision," she said.

Miguel Otárola • 612-673-4753