Main Street – Austin

SPAM Museum, Austin Minnesota

SPAM Museum, Austin Minnesota

Caveat: This is at best drive-by urbanism, I didn’t do any investigative reporting besides citing Wikipedia and visiting and photographing. I don’t really know what makes the towns tick, but even at a short glance, some issues can be identified.

Austin is [the county seat of] Mower County, Minnesota, United States. The population was 24,718 at the 2010 census.

The fourth town visited was Austin [some photos of the Museum, by this time it was raining, so none of the town]. Austin is best known as the home of Hormel, and thus the SPAM Museum. The SPAM Museum is better than I imagined. Though I saw Spam-A-Lot last year at the Orpheum, (a musical alluded to at the museum) I could not actually remember the taste of SPAM. My experience with most canned meats was poor (aside from tuna and some other fish products), but I had not ventured over to SPAM. So we bought the variety 12 pack. The first thing to note is it tastes okay, sort of like Baloney. The second thing to note is though the different cans are nominally of different flavors, this would barely be discernible without the label and a well-tuned tongue. (Okay, the one with tabasco is a little spicier).

Geo. A. Hormel Provision Market

Geo. A. Hormel Provision Market

For some reason, I expected the SPAM museum to be on Main Street. Well actually it was on Main Street. But I expected it to be on Main Street in the heart of the town. It wasn’t, it was in an industrial area. This is urbanism mistake #1, spreading your resources too thin. Cities thrive on concentration (in fact the only reason cities exist is concentration compared to the countryside). Within cities, they are more effective if concentrated (at least to a point). If I can park in one place and walk to many things, I will spend more money. Once I have to get back in my car, there is no guarantee I will park at the next things.

Instead, the SPAM Museum is a road-side attraction that has little spillover to the rest of Austin. Is it better for Austin than no SPAM-museum? … Almost assuredly. Is it better than one with a SPAM museum among the architecture of the older part of town? … No. At this point, the museum looks very new, so I don’t think this mistake will be rectified any time soon. I also don’t think there is enough growth in the core to spread it to connect contiguously with the SPAM Museum. It is just an unfortunate design decision.

SPAM Alive

SPAM Alive

Strangely, there was more classic urbanism inside the museum, with the traditional “Geo. A. Hormel & Co. Provision Market” evoking a classic early 20th century grocer.

Of the four towns we visited (the others were Faribault, Owatonna, Albert Lea), Austin was by far the weakest in terms of efforts applied to its Main Street area. There were certainly some efforts to spruce it up, and there were businesses there, and the economy seemed perky enough, it had not gone through as much historic preservation efforts and Main Street restoration as the others. The town is again growing, after some down years, and so has good prospects to continue to improve.

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5 Responses to Main Street – Austin

  1. Janne Flisrand
    Janne Flisrand January 13, 2014 at 11:50 am #

    As an Austin native (who moved away more than two decades ago), downtown was struggling even when I was in high school. It’s actually healthier now than it was then.

    I can add one bit of context which may have been obvious to you while you were there. The SPAM museum is located in what was formerly a K-Mart, and I’m sure it was proposed as a strategy to revitalize an underutilized space.

    Austin continues to spread out geographically, and especially put retail opportunities further and further out. When I biked the 2 miles to my high school reunion a few years ago, people were astounded. I had to cross the freeway and travel “busy” streets, but the streets are VERY wide, mostly with on-street parking and one travel lane in each direction and next-to-no cars. (In contrast, in Minneapolis, I ride Hennepin any location and any time of day.)

    • Froggie January 13, 2014 at 6:27 pm #

      Janne beat me to it…I distinctly recall it being reutilization of old big-box. Being not too far off I-90 also helps for snagging unsuspecting travelers who see it on the map and have curiosity overtake them (as was the case with my other half when she insisted we stop).

  2. Matt Steele January 13, 2014 at 4:02 pm #

    Downtown Austin has a great BBQ joint. Piggy’s Blues or something like that. I guess it fits the town…

  3. Cedar January 14, 2014 at 10:33 pm #

    Although not familiar in Austin (although I am anxious to visit the SPAM Museum sometime!), I am very interested in museums and the roles in which museums and other cultural/heritage destinations play in community redevelopment. I think it’s unfair to pick on the SPAM Museum here — as Janne notes, it was a redeveloped big-box store, and as such, it’s received quite a bit of national attention. It’s featured in at least one book, and in countless articles — I recall reading about it when living in other parts of the country.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the SPAM Museum (and Austin) get a steady stream of people interested in the architecture of the place more so than the subject matter. It’s been on my to-see list ever since first reading about it, and I suspect I’m not alone.

  4. Scott Bell January 15, 2014 at 7:36 pm #

    Austin native–grew up there in the 70’s and 80’s before moving away.

    Hormel moved into that spot when nobody else probably would have. If they didn’t you might have seen just another empty storefront. Now, at least, you are welcomed to town with a touch of history. Without that, you might not have stopped at all. So you’re partially right, it’s not the best location, but we do have you on Main Street, we just need you to go another quarter mile. Steve’s Pizza, Piggy Blues, El Mariachi, The Coffee House on Main, Rydjor Bike Shop…they’re all there. It’s too bad you couldn’t g the extra step and take some pictures of the old architecture that they have revealed on some of the older buildings.

    Has the city made some errors in how they’ve tried to revitalize Main Street? Some would say yes, others would say no. It’s not easy to balance reality and hope and that’s what the city council has to do with the limited resources they have available after all the required spending.

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