Small-town city planner’s visit reveals a lot about Austin
A recent free weekend, a rarity, I decided to visit what was considered “greener pastures” for a dynamic, past music educator at Pine City High School, Brad Mariska. Brad had set out for Spamtown USA after his time in Pine, leaving a huge hole to fill in the local music program. During Brad’s short tenure, Pine City was thrice named a “Best Community for Music Education in America” by the NAMM Foundation.
But Austin had to look good on paper for Brad. The southeastern Minnesota city located near the Iowa border is another one of those vibrant, All-American small towns. As it turns out, Austin is the only city in Greater Minnesota with a Fortune 500 company. There is a sense of pride there, one that can be appreciated by a band director whose students perform about town at the various school activities and town functions.
Before Brad left, I recall several visits at Nicoll’s Café, downtown Pine City, whereby Brad would help share his vision for Pine City. I came to find out that, overall, this band director has a real appreciation not only for music, but also for cities… and their respective people… and their respective people’s hopes and dreams. Conversations with him were fascinating for a city planner such as myself.
After a few years of vicariously (mainly through social media) seeing the energy Brad brought to the Packers’ band program in Austin, I had to go check out this city for myself. I’d been to Albert Lea and Rochester and other regional hubs of that area, but unfortunately I hadn’t made it to this place some 25,000 Minnesotans call home and I wanted to know what it was like.
Further, I wanted to see what the relocation meant for Brad, and how the health of the city really was. After reading a 2014 article in the Star Tribune, “Midwest Traveler: Austin, Minn., is more than Spam”, I had to see if Austin offered something more.
I had been wanting to visit for some time, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was the gorgeous Wikipedia page that was created for Austin. On it, I discovered so many things I did not even consider about Austin, that there exists an arts community and a recreational haven with a plethora of things to do besides visit the new Spam Museum. I simply could not believe the quantity of parks and trails in Austin, probably some of the most per capita of anywhere in the State (28 parks).
Things I really enjoyed about my visit:
- Vision 2020. I came across many people who knew about, and even bought into, Austin’s Vision 2020. It’s rare when a planning and community development initiative is well known across a community, and generally supported.
- Souvenirs. There was an aisle in the main local grocery store, Hy-Vee, with a label called “canned meats”, perfect for the tourist who wants to get stocked up on rarer flavors of Spam.
- Walkability. The community was very walkable, with a highly-developed sidewalk network with few gaps.
- Car chargers. An EV-owner, I really appreciated the charging stations in downtown Austin, near shops, restaurants and the famous Spam Museum.
- Diversity. From my initial walk through an Austin neighborhood, I noticed a lot of diversity. With almost 4,000 Latino residents, 1,000 black or African Americans, and 600 Asians, Austin is more diverse than the typical Minnesota city by a long shot. Over 2,600 residents of this city were foreign born, of which over one-in-ten people living in Austin were primarily coming from Latin America.
- Far-flung hotels. The majority of hotel rooms are north of I-90, which is not very enticing to walk downtown, south of the freeway.
- Hidden public facilities. The newer detention center, which I’m sure cost county taxpayers a great deal, seems to be hidden from the Main Street streetscape with a memorial and shrubbery.
- Address numbering. The address numbering system is off-kilter. For example, one of the McDonald’s is located on the 900-block of West Oakland Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets, but its address number is 1009. There are countless examples of this throughout town.
Extraordinarily interesting or uniquely Austin:
- The city’s name. I found it interesting that Austin was named after Austin Nichols. The town bears his first name, not his last like the vast majority of other towns named after people.
One of a kind places. The downtown Rydjor Bike Shop and Paramount Theater are among them. You will know them when you see them.
- Frank W. Bridges Theater. There is a theater here apparently at the community college named after someone still living, another rarity.
- Unique meeting spaces. There’s the Hormel Historic Home, the upstairs of the Austin ArtWorks Center, and the gay-owned Coffee House on Main. Lots of classy meeting space for your gatherings.
- The Meeting. Apparently, “The Meeting” takes place on Friday nights at Dusty’s Bar & Lounge, downtown Austin. It is less a meeting and more an end-of-the-week release for teachers, Hormel workers and other professionals in the community; the clientele was definitely not a typical bar crowd in a small town. I’m not sure how long this establishment has been around, but “The Meeting” is already a tradition.
- Barbecue. Who knew some of the best bar-b-que I have ever come across would be in Austin, Minnesota, and not Kansas City or Austin, Texas, for that matter? The place is called Piggy Blues Bar-B-Que and it is entirely worth it.
Similarities with Pine City:
- County seats. Both cities are county seats of their respective counties, Pine and Mower. And, both, historically, have had to struggle to maintain county seat status. Apparently, the Mower County capitol was originally in LeRoy but apparently men on horseback came and stole the county papers during the middle of the night and made Austin the capitol. In Pine County, Sandstone and more centrally-located Hinckley have unsuccessfully vied to be the county seat in the past.
- Business loops. Both are located on freeways but also have officially-designated Business Loops running through them. Only a small handful of cities across the state have business loops: Albert Lea, Faribault, and Pine City (on I-35); Worthington, Fairmont and Austin (I-90); and Moorhead (I-94).
- Wikipedia pages. Both Pine City and Austin have stellar Wikipedia pages related to their aesthetics, structure, writing style, coverage and factuality. The world can learn a lot about these communities virtually and, quite possibly, be inspired to visit.
- Arts Destinations. It is not hard to access art in either community with active arts organizations galore.
Obviously, on my next visit I’ll be sure to visit the J.C. Hormel Nature Center and the infamous newly-opened SPAM Museum and Visitor Center. But, for this trip, I was more than satisfied with my time here. Austin is definitely more than Spam. Although, I did buy over $70 of the “Miracle in a can” before leaving town.