BEMIDJI - As Melinda Sandwick prepared to expand her business from Bagley into Bemidji, she had in mind a dream location.
"I really wanted to be a downtown business. This is really the heart of the town," she said.
Sandwick got exactly what she wanted. In December she opened the second location of her Althea's Cakery at 108 Fourth St. NW.
"When I found this spot, I basically did cartwheels," she said.
At first glance, downtown Bemidji appears to be struggling. Large, high-profile buildings are sitting vacant - Pamida, Burger King, Iverson Corner Drug - adding up to more than a dozen empty storefronts downtown.
But those who do business there say the downtown is actually undergoing a rebirth.
"My perspective is that downtown is stronger than it's probably been in 10 years," said Steve Patterson, the owner of Patterson's Menswear, 200 Third St. NW, in existence there since 1930.
"What I wish we had more of downtown is ... more specialty shops," Patterson continued. "I think that is happening - it's happening slowly - but I would like to see more density in terms of shops."
Those types of stores are moving in, such as Yellow Umbrella, Althea's Cakery and a bicycle shop. These new additions are translating to a younger - 20s to 30s - breed of shoppers, keeping the downtown vibrant, Patterson said.
For their part, the new downtown arrivals say there is no place they would rather be.
Spa Boys, which opened in February at 216 Second St. NW, never considered another site, said manager Dean Schneider.
"We really like the location, the busy streets," he said, noting that next-door Downtown Meats and Cantabria Coffee across the street both bring a lot of shoppers into the area. "We were pretty much always going to be downtown."
The Bike Guy Ski and Bicycle Shop opened 18 months ago at 1900 Division St. W, less than two miles west of downtown. It now has relocated to 423 Beltrami Ave. NW, kitty-corner from Paul Bunyan Broadcasting.
The Bike Guy was the first to move into the commercial property on Division Street, said Kirby Harmon, owner of The Bike Guy, and the complex has since filled up mainly with office professionals.
"It's a great building, other than just not having enough retail traffic," Harmon said. "We (were) surviving in (that) building, but we wanted to make the next step to where we're thriving."
The downtown store is a step forward for The Bike Guy. Not only is it on "the busiest corner of downtown," according to Harmon, but its proximity to the Lake Bemidji waterfront is opening up more possibilities.
Already, the new location is an expansion of existing services - targeting cycling commuters, it has a shower room and offers free workday bike storage - but it also in the future will offer bike rentals and sell hard-serve ice cream and active toys, such as kites and pogo sticks.
"I wanted to be downtown from the beginning," said Harmon, who previously opened and managed Book World during its first year. "I really like the downtown community."
By the Pioneer's count, Bemidji's downtown has at least 15 vacant storefronts.
A cluster of those vacancies are in and around Union Square in properties owned by Kraus-Anderson. Some of the buildings are partially filled. Destiny Fellowship church, for instance, is on the second level of the former Mayflower building but the first floor is vacant.
Linda Autrey, property manager/leasing agent for Kraus-Anderson, said there definitely has been interest in several of the sites available, but nothing yet has been made official.
"I am working with a number of parties," she said. "The last few years have been tough for small retailers."
Most of the tenants that have relocated out of the area did so to purchase their own properties, such as Subway and Burger King, she said.
"I think we were really at rock bottom as far as the economy (in recent years) and there now has been a lot of recent activity again for relocations and startups," she said.
Body Matrix, a tattoo shop, was among those that left the area, but manager Tony Torgeson said it wasn't because downtown wasn't a good place to be.
"It was just time for a change," he said.
Body Matrix had been located at 125 Second St. NW for nearly 10 years, but now has relocated to 119 Paul Bunyan Drive NW, across from Blockbuster.
The new location, Torgeson said, is convenient for college students who don't have cars. It also increased the shop's footprint by more than 50 percent, going from 1,000 square feet before to 1,600 square feet.
Kraus-Anderson took over properties in and around Union Square in the 1980s, when the city and local businesspeople approached the company about redeveloping that portion of downtown, which then contained a junkyard and service stations.
Kraus-Anderson wanted to preserve and renovate the existing Markham Hotel, Autry said, but it couldn't be done.
It was able to rework the old Mayflower building. Past tenants of that building include Voyageurs Expeditionary High School, which leased the property from 2005 to 2010. Now, Destiny Fellowship is upstairs, but the first floor is unoccupied.
Autry confirmed that Skybridge Marketing Group, a customer-service company, is still planning on expanding to Bemidji into the Mayflower building, but she said the business' plans have been pushed back until likely 2013.
Previously, one of the largest vacant properties in Union Square was the 42,000-square-foot former MarketPlace Foods. But in 2008, the Bemidji Design Center took over the space as Royce and Kristie Southerland purchased the building from Kraus-Anderson, relocating and expanding Bemidji Mercantile, which had been located at Minnesota Avenue and Second Street since the 1960s.
One business that has seen great success in Union Square is Giovanni's Pizza. Giovanni's, Autry said, has been a tenant at 102 First St. W. since the new construction was finished more than 25 years ago. It started with about 2,000 square feet, expanded about 10 years later to 3,000 square feet and now is adding on with another 1,500 square feet.
"They are one of those who have excelled during the hard economy," Autrey said.
The greater Union Square area also is home to Bemidji's two farmer's markets. The former North County Farmer's Market splintered into two markets in 2010 and both have continued to offer their wares during summer months.
The Bemidji Area Famers Market has been located in the Pamida parking lot. Since Pamida closed the store earlier this year and Shopko bought out Pamida, farmers market members have been trying, thus far unsuccessfully, to secure an arrangement with Shopko, said Loralee Nennich.
Still, market members are confident the market will be held as planned in the usual location. Wes Hegna, the developer and owner of the next-door Subway complex, said he wants the farmers market to stay put and would work to make sure that is possible.
Natural Choice Famers Market meets just across the street in the parking lot of Union Square. Gail Rixen, a member of that market, said Natural Choice will hold its summer market as usual.
A few blocks north of Union Square, the largest downtown renovation is still ongoing. The Northwest Minnesota Foundation continues to work on the restoration of the former Lumberman Bank, or the former Wells Fargo. NMF purchased the complex - which has 12,000 and 14,000 square feet on its first floor - and is returning the exterior of the building to its historic roots. The NMF hopes to relocate its headquarters into the remodeled building this fall.
The former Lumberman Bank is just one of the buildings now in transition. The Bike Guy was among those properties, too, but its new store officially opened this past Thursday.
Other properties in transition include those whose futures are not known. The Bemidji Community Food Shelf, for one, is raising funds to relocate to a site in the Industrial Park. If that happens, it likely would vacate its current space at 310 Fourth St. NW. Also, the building that now hosts Anntiques, 301 Third St. NW, is up for sale while the antiques shop remains in business,
"Obviously, we can always improve (downtown); there are things we need to do to make it more attractive," said Ken Cobb, president of the city's Downtown Development Authority. "But most of our businesses are occupied. I think, in general, it's healthy compared to a lot of downtowns."
Cobb has since 2003 owned Pine Country Insurance, which has been in two downtown locations. Now Cobb is looking at potentially larger locations for the business.
"I'll be staying downtown. I want to be downtown," he said. "I think there are definite pluses to it: the atmosphere, the environment, the sense of community."