I clearly remember the first time I visited Anoka.
It was a Friday night in June 2007. I was making a late evening emergency run to Home Depot in Coon Rapids.
Once again my math had failed me and I had miscalculated the amount of cement board we would need to install ceramic tile in our entryway.
Not really knowing the lay of the land, I was a little bit nervous. I headed north across the Mississippi River bridge and rounded the bend. By the time I started heading up Ferry Street traffic was moving slowly giving me a chance to get a good look at the Main and Ferry corner.
I made sure the doors were locked.
Sitting in traffic, staring at that dilapidated Burger King building, seeing people wandering and yelling, music blasting, Anoka looked rough and I felt uncomfortable.
On July 5, 2007 I interviewed at a place called ABC Newspapers on Coon Rapids Boulevard – another corridor begging for revitalization. I was hired not too long after.
My beat as a reporter and editor? Anoka. I was doomed to sit and stare at that Burger King every single day along with the tens of thousands of others.
And did I mention I had never been particularly fond of Halloween? What a match this old city and I were to be.
While Anoka might not have made the best first impression, we’ve had some time to grow on each other.
Fast forward five years. I have grown up and Anoka has cleaned up.
One particular Monday in July, I was in my usual spot at a city council meeting, taking notes while the elected officials were taking it on the chin over their decision to spend some money, $260,000, to buy the Carpenter’s Hall on South Ferry Street.
During that meeting, City Manager Tim Cruikshank made a comment about the city’s need to stay relevant – a comment that made me pause. Because the old newspaper I work for has the same struggle as the old town I work in.
How do we continue to effectively serve the generation that built us up, while meeting the needs of a younger clientele with distinctly different expectations?
You change. You build on what’s good, bulldoze the worst of what isn’t and try to fix the rest.
While the Carpenter’s Hall isn’t in the kind of shape Burger King was when the city stepped in and cleaned up that Godforsaken mess, it is another important welcome mat for Anoka.
Whether or not it should be the role of local government to instigate that change is up to Anoka’s taxpayers and the people they elect to represent them.
But the city’s revitalization is not just about the high-profile corners.
It is the blight that has been bought up by the HRA’s scattered site program to make way for new homes and the streets that have been reconstructed. It is the long-time businesses opting to fix up their storefronts or offer new products, the companies that have stayed and invested and the entrepreneurs who have risked their every last dime to open up a shop.
A wish list remains. There are parts of the city that still need work. I’m looking forward to the riverfront park that should start taking shape soon and the idea that someday there might be a grocery store within walking distance of downtown.
Anoka’s long-timers have always known about the best of what the city had to offer and were able to look past the shabbiest parts of town.
That isn’t so easy for a newcomer.
And why are those visitors important? Because if they like what they see they just might stay.