All week, we're sharing stories of Strong Citizens on the Iron Range. They are neighborhood leaders, small business owners and everyday activists doing their part to make the Range a better place. We hope their stories inspire you to get active in your own community.
Leah Calgaro is a lifelong resident of the Iron Range. She chose a unique path for a young person and recently purchased a mixed-use building in downtown Virginia, MN. She is living in the upstairs while renovating the other floors. A few weeks ago, I had the chance to talk with her about this new endeavor.
Rachel: Tell me about your background. Have you always lived in Virginia?
Leah: I grew up here. I lived in Bemidji for 4 years while I was doing my undergrad. Then I went to the Twin Cities and was a graduate student at St. Catherine University doing a degree in holistic health studies. I decided the Twin Cities wasn’t really the place for me. I grew up in a small town, and this might be my bias, but I think it’s a friendlier place to live. I love knowing people by name everywhere I go. I’ve been pursuing different entrepreneurial-type things ever since I returned.
Rachel: You recently purchases a mixed-use building in downtown Virginia. How did you decide to buy it?
Leah: From the time that I moved back I was really interested in having my own space in a commercial district. I started working at a coffee shop downtown. I loved what they did for their space. They renovated an old clothing store and turned it into this really neat coffee shop. It’s a little gathering spot downtown. As I worked there, I saw how much help downtown needed.
I grew up with my mom bringing me and my sisters downtown. 20 years ago there was tons of people here, little stores, and people walking around. It was a community gathering space. I feel the downtown should be the heart of the city. That’s something that hasn’t been valued in the last 20 years.
While working at the coffeeshop, I was paging through real estate listings and I fell in love with my building. It’s 100 years old. It has a lot of potential. So I said, “Yes this is it.
Rachel: Tell me about the building you purchased. Did you have to do a lot of renovations to make it livable?
Leah: It’s located on Chestnut street, which is a beautiful historic main street. You can still see some of that history, but it’s definitely very neglected. It just needs some TLC.
The building is three floors. There’s a commercial space on the ground level, and we live in the apartment upstairs on the second floor. There’s also a third floor with 15 rooms—I think it used to be an old rooming house. I’d eventually like to fill those with coop housing.
As far as renovations go, my floor was in pretty good shape, but the top floor needs a lot of work. My dad is a bricklayer and stone mason. He helped me a lot in laying down floor, getting the water connected, getting heating working and so on. As we move forward with commercial space stuff, we’ll have to hire contractors to get it up to code.
Rachel: What do you plan to do with the commercial space on the ground floor?
Leah: We’ve had a bunch of ideas. We’re looking to rent it out to someone with a shared vision of downtown Virginia. Maybe retail, a yoga studio, a juice bar…something that’s going to build community. From my outlook right now, I’m newly married and I came out of college with college debt. In order to fix up my building and get something going, I’m going to need more funding.
Rachel: How do you get involved in the neighborhood and the community in Virginia?
Leah: Well, I still work at the coffee shop. We have good conversations there, I know people by face and name; I love that. There’s a downtown Virginia Business Association that’s just starting. We’re hoping to get people together for that. We’ll start by cleaning up downtown and getting people visible on the main street again. We also have a really incredible whole food coop downtown called Natural Harvest, that I’m on the board of.
Rachel: That sounds great. What’s the history of the co-op?
Leah: It actually started on our main street. We later expanded to a bigger space but it’s still near to the downtown. It originally started as a buyer's club in 1976. We have everything from fresh produce, meats and cheeses to beauty products and health products. I’m pretty sure we’re the only whole food store north of Duluth. We service the entire Iron Range, and we have members all the way up to Ely. It’s definitely a gem in the community.
Rachel: What do you see as the biggest challenges for Virginia and the region?
Leah: There are challenges but we’ll overcome them. One I think is lack of involvement. The second is a negative attitude about progress. If there’s something you want to change about your community, you need to get involved. That’s one of the great things about a small town, you have a voice. You can go to a city council meeting.
Getting the younger generation involved is also a challenge; we need to get away from our TVs and video games. Groups like ReGen are popping up. And NPR was recently here doing a talk on diversifying the economy in the Iron Range. That gives me hope.
Leah is taking the incremental steps to make her downtown a better place. Read all our Iron Range stories.
(All photos courtesy of Leah Calgaro)