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).
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.
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.