White wall

The currently bare city-owned wall is a product of its Third Street demolition project. It’s located close to other downtown murals, including a tribute to the Brand Peony Farm. (Andrew Deziel/southernminn.com)

A downtown wall that abutted its neighbor for more than a century is now a blank canvas. But what to do with it?

At a lengthy Tuesday evening work session, Faribault’s City Council discussed just how to best utilize a white metal wall that sits across from city hall itself.

A city-owned wall at 25/27th Third Street was created as a byproduct of the Third Street demolition project, which saw one of Faribault’s most historic but ill-maintained buildings removed in favor of downtown parking. As part of the building demolition bid, white embossed aluminum panels were selected as a temporary wall treatment. The panels were chosen because of affordability and value, and met insulation requirements.

For city staff eager to attract more businesses and traffic to downtown Faribault, the wall presented just too much potential to pass up. Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen said that with the right mural, the wall could become a true attraction.

“I can tell you that staff looks at that wall and sees nothing but opportunity,” Kuennen said. “How can we use this temporary wall as something different that we don’t have now?”

From a purely practical standpoint, staff fear that unregulated street art, graffiti or vandalism could make their way onto the wall if nothing is done. Kuennen said that frankly, she’s surprised it hasn’t become a significant problem already. But with the right mural, she said, the wall could be used to create “Instagrammable moments.” However, it’s unclear exactly how long the panels might be up, and a project could well void their warranty.

The idea of coupling Faribault’s historic downtown with murals is hardly new, as several projects have been funded through the Artists on Main Street Project. However, the new wall presents one of the largest and most well-located potential sites for art.

Councilor Peter van Sluis, who sits on the Paradise Center for the Arts’s Board of Directors, said that the city should waste no time in reaching out to nonprofits to seek potential grants. He said that more than enough funding is likely available to make the project work. As for what could go on the wall, van Sluis suggested using the mural to highlight Faribault’s international connections. The city has two “sister city” relationships, one with the much larger city of Wurzburg, Germany, and the other with the smaller Podensac, France.

The city’s relationship with Wurzburg dates back to the days following World War II and involves Brig. Gen. Lewis Beebe, a former assistant chief of staff to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who once called Faribault home.

Along with his wife, Beebe found himself stationed in Wurzburg in 1948. She was was so troubled by the poverty and destruction in the city, which had been wracked by Allied bombs in the closing days of the war, that she wrote back to her friends in Faribault for help. In return, boxcars full of donated blankets, coats and clothes for suffering residents were sent in return and the next year, a delegation of Faribaultians traveled to the city, establishing a friendship between the two cities.

In Podensac, a much smaller city in south France’s wine country, a century-old relationship was recently revived thanks to the research of Edouard LeGrand, a member of the town’s leadership who discovered old letters from a Faribault regiment. LeGrand learned that more than 100 years ago a small contingent of Faribault area soldiers celebrated the very first Armistice Day with the people of Podensac. He then reached out to the city to invite a delegation to Podensac, reigniting the long-lost relationship.

Alternatively, the city could choose to highlight its history. Councilor Jonathan Wood suggested partnering with the Heritage Preservation Commission to come up with a historically sound tribute to Faribault’s past.

Councilor Elizabeth Cap said she liked the idea, but said that the specific piece of Faribault history should be chosen with care. She liked the idea of highlighting the role in history played by women and indigenous persons, citing Alexander Faribault’s mother, Elizabeth Pelagie.

Janna Viscomi also chimed in, suggesting that the mural could highlight the history of the building demolished by the city. Once known as Columbia Hall, it served as a key gathering spot during the city’s early days.

Mayor Kevin Voracek suggested that by sticking to highlighting a piece of the city’s history, the council could be missing a big opportunity. By thinking a bit outside the box, Voracek said the city could produce a mural with much broader appeal.

“We want things that will draw people to downtown, that get them excited,” he said. “I kind of like the historical idea, but I kind of don’t… I’m not going to take an Instagram photo there and my daughter won’t stop there with all of her friends.”

The project is still in its infancy but given the strong interest, it’s likely to move ahead. Community Development Coordinator Kim Clausen said that the city is likely to start soliciting proposals in the next few weeks.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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