Off the Record: Marktplatz Mall beginnings

The Marktplatz Mall has been nearly empty for several years now, but with the closing of the Herberger’s, the hallways are now empty. It is sad to see it in this state, and maybe there is something that can be done with that empty space in the future, but it will take quite a revival.

It’s a little sad for me to see the Marktplatz Mall being shuttered. I remember when it was just a gleam in the eye of the New Ulm City Council, which held such high hopes that it would be the anchor and salvation of the downtown retail community.

In the mid-1980s the city council, led at the time by Councilor-at-Large Bill Gafford, was presented with the idea of building a downtown mall. Other communities had done this to combat the idea of someone building a strip mall out on the edge of town and luring all the downtown businesses away, leaving downtowns looking like a ghost town.

There had been proposals to do the same in New Ulm, and it was only a matter of time before someone was successful. New Ulm had a vibrant retail district downtown and the city leaders wanted to keep it that way.

In those days, no development in town got done without the blessing of Gafford, who wielded a political power that went beyond the powers of his office as spelled out in the city charter. He had a forceful, prickly charisma that appealed to the masses and kept getting him elected. He had a loyal ally in councilor Harold Hippert, who saw things exactly the same way Gafford did. The opposition on the council consisted of councilors Joe Herbeck and Dr. Jim Seifert, leaving Dan Beranek as the swing voter who usually sided with Gafford. The council meetings in those days were epic confrontations as Gafford and Herbeck argued and insulted each other. The motto of the council in those days was “Three-to-two, what else is new?”

There was a lot of support for a downtown mall in New Ulm, to prevent the kind of development so many other towns had seen. No one wanted to see the downtown business district wither away. So the council decided to take a road trip to visit a couple of communities in northern Minnesota that had undertaken downtown mall projects.

As the editor of the paper, I went along to chronicle this journey. We traveled to Grand Rapids, Detroit Lakes and Brainerd to see how their projects were working out.

I’m not sure how they are working today, but back then they were looking good. Detroit Lakes was still under construction but Grand Rapids and Brainerd were up and running, and were drawing customers to the downtown areas.

I don’t remember a lot about the trip, except that as we had dinner on the way back in a restaurant overlooking Lake Mille Lacs, Larry “The Axe” Hennig walked in. He was a big, burly and surprisingly pleasant looking man for a professional wrestler who had converted from the side of villainy to the good guy side.

But what I remember most from that trip was the gleam in the eye of Bill Gafford, the light of possibility, as he came to believe that a downtown mall was a good idea for New Ulm.

With Gafford’s support, I knew the downtown mall was going to happen. There was a lot of contention about who would build it, what they would build, what the city was going to spend and who was going to get stuck with the bill for the bonds if it didn’t work out. (Gafford made sure it wasn’t the city.)

The mall was built, and for a time it flourished but it never quite took off the way everyone hoped it would. I’ll have more next week on why it never soared.

Today it sits empty, in need of a new purpose, a new direction. Perhaps in the future it will become a focal point for a new kind of downtown, so it can finally fulfill its goal of solidifying the downtown area.

——

Kevin Sweeney has been the managing editor of The Journal since May 1985. A native of St. Paul, he worked at newspapers in LeSueur and Albert Lea before moving to New Ulm. Contact him at ksweeney@nujournal.com.

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