The changing economy of the Rum River District

The Historic Rum River District near Anoka City Hall has passed through five periods of economic change and redevelopment.

Bob Kirchner

Bob Kirchner

Previously identified as the North Central Business District, this area is north of Jackson, west of Third, south of Harrison and east of the Rum River. It contains about 20 acres.

In 2006, when the city entered into a development agreement with Rottlund Homes, the company dubbed this area Historic Rum River District to identify it for marketing. That name still applies.

This is where the city of Anoka began. Harnessed power of the river was the initial economic engine that established the Anoka settlement and boomed it into a city.

Further, this location is the heartbeat of Anoka. Its economic pulse has ebbed and flowed over the decades driving changes in the larger community.

A review of land use records in this district reveals 160 years of urban growth and redevelopment in response to on-going economic change.

The first economic age was the milling industry. Lumber and flour mills lined the east bank of the Rum River above the Main Street bridge during the earliest decades of the city. They reached their zenith in the 1870s and early 1880s.

The huge Washburn Sawmill shut down about 1890 and the Pillsbury Flour Mill carried on into the early 1930s. The age of milling in Anoka reigned for about 50 years (1850-1900).

Then, a shortage of timber and competing milling markets brought this economy to an end in Anoka. Both mills were demolished.

The second economy here was the agricultural market serving the county and beyond.

The Oct. 2, 1907 edition of the Anoka County Union announced, “Warehouses for Downtown—Change in Market.” Two years later headlines read “Will Construct Huge Warehouse—New Business District.”

Anoka became a rail transshipment point for a huge potato market. Farm implement dealers, potato warehouses and feed, coal and farm supply stores dominated this area for about 30 years (1900-1930).

But trucks replaced rail service and competing supply outlets drew away customers.

Then other businesses took root.

The third economy to emerge was general commerce. Rum River Lumber, Colonial Upholstery, Grosslein Beverage, Pease Printery and Nielsen’s Super Market operated here. This economy endured about 30 years (1930 to 1960).

Meanwhile, the county population was growing rapidly and Anoka was still a county-wide destination for consumer goods.

Those forces brought about the fourth economy which was the age of major retail. National and regional retailers parked themselves in destination county seats like Anoka. Here they included Sears, Wards, Big Bear and locals like Jack’s Outlet and Freeburg Fuel, all facing Second Avenue North. This economy held out for about 30 years (1960-1990).

Then big box commercial development in surrounding cities drew away customers by pricing, parking and convenience.

The area slid into its fifth economy which appeared as specialty retail and services.  uring this time Hutton & Rowe Plumbery, B & B Carpet, Superior Heating, a beauty shop, dry cleaning and jewelry store thrived here. But this economy only lasted about 20 years (1990-2010).

The pace of economic change was accelerating. By the late 1990s, commercial buildings in this area began to decline with rapid turnover of tenants reacting to market shifts.

Some businesses relocated to larger facilities. Some buildings went vacant. Redevelopment was needed again.

We are now entering the sixth economic age that might be called the residential-recreational economy.

Today, the attractions of this place are the river, the future riverfront park and the historic downtown shopping district.

This redevelopment area is becoming a walkable residential neighborhood supported by downtown retail and service businesses.

Rottlund’s 40-unit senior condominium building led off this residential era.

So, since 1850, there have been five economic cycles in this area producing building construction, demolition, followed by new construction again. The sixth is now underway.

This recurring renewal is a sign of a durable and healthy city.

Currently, the city is marketing three redevelopment sites in this district for a housing and retail mix. And construction of the riverfront park will begin next year.

So come and take a look now before it changes again.

Bob Kirchner is a local historian, seminary student and city of Anoka’s part-time community development director.

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