Vacant building

Many of downtown Faribault’s vacant buildings are owned by a single developer, John Sheesley. Sheesley says he’s working to fix up the buildings and bring strong, viable businesses into those places, but that doing so takes time. (Andrew Deziel/Faribault Daily News)

Faribault’s City Council wants to reduce what it views as an excessively high number of building vacancies in the downtown business district. But so far, it’s not landed on a solution.

At its Oct. 1 work session, the council discussed, but ultimately tabled a suggestion to implement a registration fee on owners of vacant buildings.

In preparation for the work session, city staff reached out to Brooklyn Center, Champlin, Long Lake and Minneapolis to find out how they have implemented building vacancy registration fee programs. After hearing the presentation from City Administrator Tim Murray, and Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen, councilors engaged in a lively discussion on the issue.

Councilor Jonathan Wood, who owns a construction business, said he liked the idea of the vacant building registration program. However, Wood said he found Minneapolis’s fee scale to be unreasonably high for Faribault. In Minneapolis, owners of vacant buildings pay a fee of $7,000 annually to the city.

Wood said that Brooklyn Center’s lower sliding scale fee seemed a more realistic option for Faribault. In Brooklyn Center, a fee of $400 for is charged to owners of buildings vacant for less than one year, with slightly higher fees for owners of residential buildings. The fee rises $1,000 per year from years one to three and $3,000 after three years.

“If you’re not going to do anything with the building, that doesn’t align with the 2040 Vision,” said Wood. “Make it a small fee, and let’s light a fire under some of the landlords.”

Councilor Royal Ross’ sentiments were more in line with the majority of the council when he expressed skepticism about the proposal. Ross said that although he is deeply frustrated with the number of vacancies, he doesn’t believe that government should tell building owners how to use their properties.

While Ross wasn’t comfortable with a building vacancy registration fee, he said he’d be hard-pressed to approve any more investment in downtown business improvements so long as the current situation continues. As former coordinator of Faribault Main Street, Ross played a key role in securing increased funding for building inspections and repairs in the downtown historic district.

“If the question is whether to invest more in downtown, my vote is no,” Ross said. “The public is getting frustrated with the lack of effort.”

After the city in 2012 was forced to step in after the facade at 206 Central Ave. began to separate from the building, threatening pedestrian safety, the city began a focused effort to ensure the safety and longevity of buildings in the downtown business district, Minnesota’s second largest historic district.

Thanks to the efforts of organizations like Faribault Main Street, the council’s investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Downtown Rehabilitation and Exterior Improvement program, aid from federal and state tax credits and the implementation of a comprehensive building and fire inspection program, the state of many downtown buildings has improved markedly in recent years.

Even as building conditions have improved, numerous prominent buildings remain vacant. Mayor Kevin Voracek expressed frustration at the lack of progress toward finding tenants.

“There are buildings downtown that are vacant, but you can’t go down and rent them,” said Voracek.

Many vacant downtown buildings are owned by a single Minneapolis-based landlord, John Sheesley. In 2016, the Marines veteran announced plans to move his business, Dacotah Furniture, to Faribault.

Sheesley recently secured his first major tenant with the help of a $250,000 loan from the State Bank of Faribault, coupled with much smaller investments from Faribault’s Economic Development Authority and the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. Hot sauce company Cry Baby Craig’s, founded by Minneapolis chef Craig Kaiser, plans on moving its operational headquarters into Sheesley’s building on 313 Central Ave.

In a 2016 Daily News article published shortly after he purchased his 10th downtown building, Sheesley outlined his vision of building downtown Faribault as a “a community of craftsmen and artisans, who have storefronts facing Central Avenue and small-scale manufacturing in the back.” Sheesley pledged to carefully maintain his buildings and help Faribault to transform its historic downtown into a shopping and tourist destination for the region.

Sheesley made a significant first step toward bringing that vision to fruition when he was able to secure a change to the city’s zoning laws to allow businesses to manufacture goods downtown. Three years after Sheesley projected a three to five year timetable for transforming Faribault into an artisan community, progress has been slow.

Today, Sheesley owns 11 vacant storefronts, with two new tenants about to enter into leases. He said that he’s taking his time to recruit existing businesses with a proven, viable business model.

The arrival of Cry Baby Craig’s will mark the culmination of a four-year effort to bring the hot sauce manufacturer to town, and Sheesley says he is currently in negotiations that could bring in several more businesses. He’s consulted with other cities around the country and worked closely with city staff to develop a vision that he’s convinced can work for Faribault.

“Fixing a downtown… it doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “When you try to do it too fast, you risk having too much investment too fast… and going under. What I’m trying to do is a sustainable development.”

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