New Ulm's German Heritage

How would you define and prioritize the cultural assets of the place you call home?


Beginning in July 2019, Rethos partnered with local residents in New Ulm, MN for an assessment of their downtown area. This downtown assessment identified community assets to provide cultural activation strategies for better serving the wants and needs of New Ulm residents, as well as providing a cultural framework to draw new ideas from.

Over a six month period Rethos’ Rural Programs team engaged the community in a number of ways. A preliminary partnership with the downtown assessment steering committee and New Ulm Chamber of Commerce helped to identify stakeholders and gather initial information about the town. Rethos staff then put boots to the ground and over a series of visits met with business owners, city leaders, stakeholders, and New Ulm residents broadly to discuss their thoughts, both positive and negative, of downtown New Ulm. During these visits Rethos staff met community members where they’re at, talking to people in restaurants, boutiques, bars, parks, and at community events. These engagements led to in person conversations with over 300 residents and an online survey resulting in 561 local responses. In these conversations we identified distinct cultural assets of the neighborhood: the places, stories, and features that make downtown unique. Major themes emerged that told the story of downtown New Ulm: pride in the German heritage of the town, affection for the iconic downtown look combined with German architectural flair, generations of families making New Ulm business their lives’ work, a tradition of festivals and celebrations in the downtown, and the desire to keep downtown New Ulm as a gathering and business space for all ages.


Popcorn Wagon outside of City Hall downtown

The results of these conversations and surveys were compiled into a report of what New Ulm holds dear as well as what residents desire. In addition to the report a GIS story map was constructed featuring downtown’s most beloved businesses and institutions both past and present. Including former icons of downtown New Ulm was pivotal to the story map as many residents still mourn the loss of downtown anchors and longtime staples such as Herbergers, George’s Ballroom, and Retzlaff Hardware to name a few. This map is also managed by the New Ulm Chamber of Commerce who are capable of adding, editing, and customizing moving forward.


The Grand Hotel | Along with being a staple of arts and culture in New Ulm’s downtown district, the rehabilitated Grand Hotel is featured in the 2019 Historic Tax Credit Economic Impact Report as a successful case study. Reimagined with only $2.4M, the project generated $16.60 per dollar of State Historic Tax Credit dollar. Left: Exterior, The Grand Center for Arts and Culture. Top Right: Grand Dining and Music Venue. Bottom

Featured within the story map are also intangible cultural characteristics, or the most mentioned phrases and feelings that people use to define downtown New Ulm. In many ways these characteristics serve as the basis for dissecting the rest of the map and the town as a whole. For example New Ulm’s strong German heritage could be linked to the abundance of restaurants and gathering spaces as a reflection of traditional German ways of socializing, celebrating, and community engagement.

Once the report and story map were completed two community presentations were held in New Ulm to discuss the findings with New Ulm residents. Findings ranged from favorite businesses and ways of identifying the town to what residents felt was most needed downtown; with a men’s clothing store, a shoe store, a grocery store, and improvements to parking laws and availability being at the top of the list.


The New Ulm Journal Office

The report also detailed additional recurring themes from conversations such as the town’s feeling of personal responsibility towards businesses. New Ulm residents feel a personal obligation to shop local, dine, local, spend their dollars locally. They feel a desire to keep their town alive and vibrant, in turn young entrepreneurs are stepping up and making New Ulm a place that they want to be. Not only are new businesses opening up, young entrepreneurs are taking over existing businesses, ensuring a future for these cornerstone shops while forming a lasting legacy of retail built on the natural evolution and needs of New Ulm.

German heritage was also a major theme discussed, with the report showing differences in generational attitudes of the idea of an ausländer German for foreigners, with younger residents placing far less importance on whether or not someone was born and raised in New Ulm. These examples are only a sampling of what is included in the report which concludes with a number of recommendations and opportunities that New Ulm might utilize moving forward.


Interior of the Ulmer Cafe

While the community can look at the information presented in the report and draw their own recommendations, the plan can be used as a framework to develop marketing and tourism initiatives, a platform for business and retaining and recruiting resident,, a building block for seeking various types of investment, or as a planning tool to build additional strategies for growth and revitalization. This story map serves as an interactive way to identify what the residents of New Ulm value most, which in turn can help the city or other organizations in identifying areas of need, implementing new policies or initiatives, organizing events, and other avenues of creative project based planning.

Downtown assessment work is continuing in other communities as well, with early work and partnerships being developed in Litchfield and Willmar for 2020. In essence, downtown assessments are a testament to what makes downtown unique and special to residents. It articulates the legacy of downtown, the specific qualities that define it in the present, and a vision for growth that will carry it towards a thriving future.


If your community is interested in an assessment please contact Rethos Rural Programs for more information.

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