Minnesota | 1998 Great American Main Street Award® Winner | Posted: 10/16/2008
Lanesboro (pop. 858), now known as "The Magical Hamlet," is a thriving community that has become a destination for hundreds of thousands of visitors from the upper Midwest. Nevertheless, there was a time in the 1970s when Lanesboro was known regionally by the less charming sobriquet of "sewer city." Settled in 1856, this little town in the Root River Valley had grown into a busy mill community by the mid-1870s, when most of the downtown commercial district remaining today was built. Less than 100 years later, however, most historic buildings were in disrepair, storefronts were boarded up, and the theater was dark. One could literally fire a cannon down main street and not hit a soul. The last straw came when the Milwaukee Railroad, which had closed its route through Lanesboro, sold the 1870 depot to an individual who tore it down.
The demolition of the depot was the unexpected catalyst for a group of citizens to form a volunteer task force for cultural and commercial revitalization. Gaining support by knocking on doors and holding town meetings, the task force began the revitalization process. City government, local nonprofit organizations, and private individuals created a collaborative plan focusing on natural resources, the arts, and historic preservation to bring back main street. All told, 250 volunteers have given their time and expertise to this effort — about 30 percent of the population.
In 1985, the entire downtown district was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile, the Root River State Bike & Recreation Trail took the place of the defunct Milwaukee Railroad bed. Now over 40 miles of paved trail attracts visitors through Lanesboro in every season of the year.
On the arts front, the Lanesboro Art Council purchased and restored the old movie theater. Now home to the Commonwealth Theatre Company, the old theater hosts thousands of visitors ten months out of the year. The Cornucopia Art Center sponsors changing exhibits of national and international art, as well as maintaining a sales gallery for dozens of regional artists. Award-winning gourmet dining and lodging establishments flourish in historic buildings, and a local history museum and living, natural history museum add to Lanesboro's cultural renaissance.
To signal the change in Lanesboro's fortunes, the train depot was reconstructed. A volunteer group formed to raise the funds necessary to rebuild the structure. The depot occupies its original spot and is now home to the Lanesboro Visitor Center, Minnesota DNR Trail Head Office, a public meeting room, and public restrooms.
Lanesboro has been reborn. Businesses essential to residents' and visitors' needs have returned, and 50 new businesses have opened. There has been a 200 percent increase in the number of jobs downtown. The arts flourish and tourism thrives — 20 lodging establishments have opened to provide 102 rooms. Agriculture continues to be sustainable, and the local school is still independent. In 1996, Lanesboro was designated one of The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America, by John Villani, and in 1998 Sports Afield Magazine named Lanesboro one of the "50 Best Outdoor Sports Towns."