That one big thing that downtown Hopkins needs

A recent (and ongoing) series of articles on Hopkins Patch has been focusing on various vacant properties in the city and asking Patch users just what should go in them. So far, two of the three locations have been storefronts on Mainstreet in the central downtown area, a restaurant shuttered after numerous health violations and a liquor store that moved next door. These have provided the impetus of what is essentially a laundry list of businesses that residents would like to see downtown: A deli, a bakery, a new restaurant, a men’s clothing store, and so forth. These are all great suggestions, and I would love to have any one of them set up shop, but to be a true, major shopping destination, Hopkins is in desperate need of a major draw to bring in customers. If you’ll pardon the pun, to be a ship-shape shopping district, downtown needs an anchor.

Take a look at the other shopping destinations, most of them suburban malls, and you’ll see what I mean. Ridgedale has Macy’s, JCPenney, and Sears. Eden Prairie Center has Target, Von Mauer, and Kohl’s. Even Knollwood, the little half-empty mall just outside Hopkins city limits, has a Kohl’s. The anchor stores, big retailers that draw in larger numbers of customers, are thus called anchors because the smaller retailers sort of hitch themselves on and use the big stores’ draw to pick up on that flow of customer traffic.

Hopkins does have many components that make it a destination in the region. There’s a wide spectrum of dining, some decent night life, a cinema and a theater, and there’s even still some retail and services: A grocer, a pharmacy, a hardware store, a florist, some stores for women’s clothing and accessories, and much more, mostly locally owned mom-and-pop places. But the variety of businesses is skewed toward dining and entertainment, and when it comes down to getting some serious shopping done Hopkins residents go elsewhere. Just this last weekend, my wife and I made excursions to two of the malls mentioned, Ridgedale and Knollwood, and in both cases we were drawn in by an anchor store, stayed for lunch, and then also hit up some of the smaller stores as well. If downtown Hopkins had such a place, it could be a magnet for customers, that needed anchor upon which a vibrant shopping district can tie itself to.

A big question is just who would fit in Hopkins. One could naturally assume that a one-off, mom-and-pop department store would be ideal, but also the least likely. Not only would it be a risky venture, such niche stores only seem to succeed as high-end luxury, something that Hopkins is not and should not aspire to be in the near-term (we can let that daring entrepreneur set up at 50th and France). No, I would look to an established chain that has success surviving within the context of a “traditional” downtown even today, as well as one that doesn’t have a presence as close by as Ridgedale or Eden Prairie. On top of that list, for me, is Herberger’s. Their closest store is Southdale (not too far, but still…), and one only needs to look at their downtown St. Cloud store to see that they do have a model for how to succeed in such a setting. Alternatively, one could look to places like Marshall’s or Nordstrom Rack, two stores that could fit in the area as direct competition to the nearby TJ Maxx in Knollwood. Another idea could be to look outside of the Twin Cities for some other nearby chain that could be convinced to want a foothold in the area. Maybe ShopKo has experience with smaller-scale stores (or multi-level ones like the downtown Minneapolis Target) and is just waiting for the perfect opportunity to get in to the area.

The other big question is where does this store fit. After all, the model for department stores (or any large store) since the 1950s has been the ubiquitous big-box, the large, flat, space-consuming single-level store surrounded by ample surface parking. This is not what I’m suggesting goes in (again, look at Herberger’s in St. Cloud), but this store is still going to take a significant amount of space. Ideally, this should be as close to Mainstreet and/or 8th Avenue South as possible, as these two streets are the axis upon which downtown is set upon. One could look to the Johnson Building as the ideal location, as the city is eyeing it up for redevelopment in anticipation of the Southwest Light Rail station being built right across Excelsior Boulevard. Other possible locations could be the Elk’s Club (assuming they can be convinced to move and adjacent properties could be added to the site… Imagine a store that fronts 8th Street stretching from where the Elks are now all the way to a grand entrance on the corner where Curry ‘N Noodles currently sits), the single-story commercial building behind Marketplace Lofts (taking up the surface lot behind that building as well), or even the Post Office site (assuming that the USPS continues to consolidate operations into larger facilities and leaves Hopkins with a smaller “retail store” instead of the larger facility we currently have). All of these assume that a parking ramp would be needed, and I would anticipate that it would be a free municipal ramp, for the dual reasoning that a precedent has been set by the existing ramp that serves our downtown as well as the prospect of just worrying about constructing the store and not having to maintain a vast parking lot could be used to draw in a retailer.

Hopkins is in need of a lot of little pieces in order to transform itself from a quaint downtown into a serious competitor against the sprawling suburban shopping centers that have sprung up nearby. One can talk of wanting to see a men’s clothing store come in, or a children’s clothing store, or a bookstore or music store or electronics store or whatever other kind of retail that makes up the fabric of a robust shopping district. But all of these still need that one bit of ballast to hold them in place, that department-style anchor that draws in customers for their major shopping needs and then sets them loose to spend money at whoever else hangs a shingle. Just imagine that all the residents in the increasingly denser-populated core of Hopkins didn’t need to leave the city and spend their money in Minnetonka or Edina or Eden Prairie just to buy something as necessary as a pair of (dare I say it) underwear, or if people got off the light rail at the downtown station on their way home from work and did some quick shopping in downtown Hopkins before hopping in the car they left and the park-n-ride and heading home just because it’s that much more convenient than driving from the station to Eden Prairie Center then to home. That’s the kind of future Hopkins can have, and all it would take to attract more small businesses into these smaller, vacant storefronts is just one business that is willing to go big.

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