Hey friends. I'm starting this from the airport terminal in Biloxi where my flight has been delayed. Looks like I'm going to miss my connecting flight meaning, instead of getting to pick my daughters up from school, I'm going to be taking a four hour van ride and getting home after they are long asleep. I love sharing the Strong Towns message with so many people and I'm happy to have had the chance to come to Mississippi, but I loath days like this. I just want to be home.

I tried really hard to get the News Digest out this week. I have a TON of material since a lot is going on and I didn't publish a digest last week. That being said, the Strong Towns team has been working pretty intensely this week on a grant application and I was up until all hours finalizing the project narrative. Knowing I had a 4:00 AM wakeup call to make my flight, I gave up when I realized I was only going to get three hours of sleep. So sorry.

Instead of our normal programming, I'm actually going to share the narrative I just finished with you. It is going to be emailed at the end of the day today so if you see any horrendous errors, flawed methodology or obvious ommissions, please let us know. I'm really excited about this project -- it is a critical next step for the movement we are leading.

Thanks everyone. Keep doing what you can to build strong towns.

---

A Better Brainerd, Project Narrative

An Initiative of Strong Towns

Strong Towns, a Minnesota-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization, is proposing a local initiative to demonstrate the relationship between quality of life and the financial health of a city. We intend to focus on one neglected neighborhood in Northeast Brainerd -- a small town of 13,500 in Central Minnesota -- in order to show that a different understanding of growth, development and prosperity can achieve significant financial returns for local governments. In an age where cities of all sizes are experiencing deep financial problems, the results attained in this project will be a model for the entire nation.

Background on Brainerd

There are many things that can be said about the city of Brainerd, but for the sake of our project, there are three points that are critical.

1.       Brainerd is an old logging town built at the intersection of the Mississippi River and a major east/west railroad line.

We start with this because it is important to understand that the historic parts of Brainerd, including our neighborhood of focus, were built using the traditional pattern of development. This means mixed-use neighborhoods in a grid pattern. At one time, our neighborhood included not only housing but local shops, restaurants and service providers. People could get around by automobile, but they could also walk or bike conveniently to most destinations. The city even had a trolley that provided transit to the downtown.

Like nearly every U.S. city of similar vintage, after World War II, Brainerd began a program of reconfiguring public spaces to increase automobile mobility. Streets were widened, trees and sidewalks removed, buildings torn down for parking lots and suburban development codes adopted. This was done based on the belief that it would create growth and prosperity.

2.       Brainerd’s population has not grown in the post World War II era.

While some growth has been induced on the periphery of town, prosperity has been elusive. Brainerd’s core downtown struggles to attract and retain quality merchants and the surrounding neighborhoods have experienced sixty years of stagnation, decline and population loss. This persisted throughout the 1990’s up to the housing bust, a time when the surrounding region was one of the fastest growing micropolitans in the nation.

Brainerd now has major initiatives to deal with slum lords, trash removal and blight – the symptoms of their policies – but have had difficulty recognizing the connection between the reorientation of their neighborhoods and their failure to thrive. Indeed, the city recently spent over $9 million on widening another road, a one mile project that creates a high speed shortcut from one of their core neighborhoods to the Wal-Mart in the neighboring city. Fighting congestion and inducing growth were the reasons given the public for this enormous expenditure, an amount greater than the city’s entire annual budget.

3.       Nearly half of the city’s budget is aid from state, an appropriation that is not secure as even a near term source of revenue.

It is clear that this type of spending approach in pursuit of new growth cannot continue, and so whether the city would desire to extend this policy or not, it is simply not able to. The State Economist, Tom Stinson, testified to the Minnesota Legislature that, at current rates of growth, the entire state budget will be spent on health care by 2023. While we anticipate significant policy changes between now and then, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where local government aid – which currently makes up nearly half of Brainerd’s revenue – continues at current levels.

A change of approach is inevitable for Brainerd, but how innovative will they be able to be if they are simultaneously forced to cut millions of dollars out of their budget on short notice? Brainerd – and cities across the state and nation in a similar situation – need a way to generate far greater financial returns with far less revenue. This can’t be done without embracing a completely new paradigm.

Fortunately, one recent project in Brainerd provides a clear case study for a new approach.

Brainerd’s Taco John’s

In 2007, the owners of Taco John’s approached the city of Brainerd to see about locating their business three blocks east on highway 210. To do this, they would need to tear down a number of old and blighted buildings and, for that reason, were requesting a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) subsidy. The project was looked at so favorably by the city that it ultimately granted a 26-year TIF package to make it happen[1].

While the length of the subsidy may be extraordinary, the overall development was not. It was completely consistent with the city’s planning documents, which call for the removal of old buildings throughout this corridor and their ultimate replacement with auto-oriented businesses similar to Taco John’s. It was also consistent with the city’s ordinances, which actually prohibit the construction of a new block in the traditional style but facilitate the construction of auto-oriented development. In short, a successful future for the entire corridor would result in a replacement of the old buildings built in the traditional development pattern with the new buildings in the auto-oriented style.

We researched what this would mean from a tax base standpoint. The following picture shows two identical blocks along the Highway 210 corridor. The one on the right that is labeled “Shiny and New” is the new Taco John’s. The one on the left labeled “Old and Blighted” is a block constructed in the traditional development pattern. As the label indicates, the block on the left is in rough shape.

We published the analysis in detail on our blog[2], but in summation, here’s the incredible insight: When the tax base of these two identical areas is compared, the Old and Blighted block outperforms the Shiny and New by 41%.

Total Value of the Old and Blighted block:            $1,136,500

Total Value of the Shiny and New block:               $803,200[3]

Equally important, as we studied the makeup of the businesses on these two identical blocks, we found that the Old and Blighted block employed more people, had more local small business owners and utilized more local professional services like accountants, advertisers and attorneys than the Shiny and New.

By its policy of encouraging the transformation of this neighborhood, the city was systematically lowering its tax base while limiting employment opportunities for its residents. While on the surface this policy makes no sense, it is broadly supported not just by public officials and their professional advisors, but by the general public as well. Nobody wants the city to persist with old, blighted properties and nearly everyone looks at the removal and replacement of those properties as progress.

In this one example, we see the narrative of Brainerd for the past sixty years. Each increment of perceived “progress” actually results in decline. Obviously, this approach cannot persist indefinitely.

From the Mayor’s Office

When we shared these findings with city officials and their professional advisors, there was more than a little bit of defensive outrage. The buildings that were removed to make way for Taco John’s were blighted. Taco John’s was considering moving out of the city altogether. In that situation, what would Strong Towns have done differently?

That is a flawed question. By the time the Old and Blighted properties have become old and blighted and a redevelopment proposal is on the table, it is too late to do much of anything. As a society, we accept heroic public efforts to turn these places around because we see them as failures. Once the Titanic had listed on its side and the bow dipped into the water, there was nothing that was going to change its fate. Abandon ship was the best option available.

The key to solving the Titanic disaster of what cities like Brainerd have done to their traditional neighborhoods is to put them on a different course. We need to arrest the pattern of decline and, instead, focus on improving the value of what is currently there. And because we at Strong Towns are in touch with the desperate financial realities of America’s cities, we know that we need to find ways to do that at a fraction of the cost of our current approach.

To answer the question – What would Strong Towns have done differently? – we published a three part series on our blog titled From the Mayor’s Office[4]. In it, we issue a proclamation for reform from a fictional mayor intent on doing things differently. It begins with establishing four measurable goals for our target neighborhood.

  1. Double the tax base of NE Brainerd (8% per year average increase).
  2. Increase the total number of jobs in NE Brainerd by 150% (10.5% per year average increase).
  3. Increase the population of NE Brainerd by 50% (4.5% per year average increase).
  4. Hold budget increases for the city to less than 3% annually, an increase of just 30% over the next decade.

The series then goes through each department and defines what a new approach focused on these goals looks like. It is radically different than anything cities are currently doing in pursuit of prosperity. The proposal you are reading is meant to jump start that transformation.

Answering the Right Questions

Understanding that there is enormous financial resiliency embedded in the traditional development pattern, we really need to be asking ourselves how we build on that value. How would we take the Old and Blighted block and make it 10% more valuable? What would it take to make all of the houses in the blocks north of the Old and Blighted block 10% more valuable? How do we repeat that outcome multiple times over multiple years?

As we examined these questions and more, we began to understand that the entire problem could be reduced to one salient inquiry:

What would make someone want to move to NE Brainerd?

That is the question that needs to be answered, and when we start to answer it, we discover that there is no simple solution, no single initiative and no one strategy that can reverse the decline. It is literally going to require many small initiatives over a broad spectrum over a sustained period of time.

As one example, we recognized that, if a family could live in NE Brainerd with only one car, that would save them, on average, $8,500 per year. That amount applied to a 30-year mortgage at today’s rates would yield an additional $120,000 in purchasing power, more than the value of almost all the homes in this neighborhood. If we can make the neighborhood walkable, families could essentially live for free. That is a market changer!

The neighborhood is not walkable, however, and there is no push to make it that way, although the resources tied up in the current overly-wide streets are more than ample for the task. These resources just need to be applied differently in the future. That is going to take citizen input, but citizens are not well organized around these issues. Sidewalks are largely seen as an expensive nuisance for homeowners to maintain, mostly because few exist, they dead end and there are no walkable destinations nearby.

We can’t create walkable destinations because the local development code prohibits them. The code currently excludes mixed use development, requires large setbacks and enormous parking ratios. This precludes anything but expensive, auto-oriented investments, something financially out of the reach of most neighborhood residents.

The codes also discourage quality residential development. In additional to requiring suburban setbacks so as to facilitate on-property auto storage, codes prohibit many of the logical land uses in traditional neighborhoods. Renting out one’s basement to a college student is prohibited. Using the first floor as office space is likewise. The restrictions on how a property may be used drives down values until the only uses that cash flow are blighted rentals. Once that happens, the neighborhood is stuck because owners, satisfied with their current cash-positive situation, are loath to risk investments in their property or the adjacent public space.

All this represents just a small smattering of the complex problems this neighborhood, and countless others around the country, face.

There is huge reason for optimism, however. Realize that, in the Taco John’s situation, if the city would have just done nothing, its financial situation on that site would have improved by 41% (even more if the tax subsidy is accounted for). We can do a lot more than nothing, however. We can actually make modest, incremental enhancements to our neighborhoods that will improve their desirability, the quality of life for its residents and have dramatic positive impacts on the underlying tax base. And we can do all this for a fraction of the resources the city is currently spending.

Proposed Work

We are proposing to initiate those modest, incremental changes throughout one demonstration neighborhood in Brainerd. The changes will focus on three things:

  1. Placemaking, the art/craft of improving the quality of the public realm.
  2. Networking, connecting the residents, businesses and organizations within this neighborhood around a vision for local action.
  3. Education, communicating the ideas of a Strong Town to the community, the city and others in support of neighborhood initiatives.

We propose to organize and gently nudge the people within this neighborhood to take collective action to improve their situation. We don’t know who will emerge as leaders and champions of what initiatives and so it is impossible for us to say precisely what interventions will be most effective, but our toolbox includes: 

  • Tactical Urbanism. Using teams from the neighborhood, we will do regular Tactical Urbanism interventions to improve the quality of the pubic space. Examples of Tactical Urbanism projects include planting trees, cleaning up abandoned lots and painting crosswalks. We will develop teams that operate independently and initiate projects that are replicable across the entire neighborhood.
  • Events. We want to hold a number of events in the neighborhood to solidify the community aspect of the physical sense of place we are developing. For example, we want to help brand this neighborhood as the “Bike Neighborhood” and so we plan to hold an open streets event, a day where the streets are closed to cars and turned over to bikes.

We also hope to replicate the success of Snap Shot City, a digital scavenger hunt that gives people an opportunity to meet their neighbors while taking a closer look at their neighborhood. We are considering having Active Days where we close down one block, bring in basketball hoops or hockey nets, and turn the public space into recreational space.

Something we are calling The $10,000 Challenge would seek to identify local leaders and replicable projects they initiate. Through four rounds, individuals would be given increasing amounts of money to spend on placemaking projects within the neighborhood. The first round would engage 20 people with $100 each. The top five would go to the second round and receive $400. The top two would then get $1,500 each and the final winner would be given an opportunity to spend $4,000 on a project to improve the neighborhood. Each of these projects would be shared on a website and would become case studies to be replicated elsewhere.

While we will initiate the events, we will look for local champions to carry them forward. 

  • Contests. We intend to hold a number of contests throughout the neighborhood such as best front garden, most improved and others. Winners will get a block party / pizza party on their block.
  • Public Art. Our neighborhood has an Artspace facility, live/work units for artists. We want to work with these artists to integrate their work into the surrounding neighborhood. A Minnesota example would be the sidewalk poetry utilized by the city of St. Paul.
  • Lowell Elementary School. The target neighborhood still retains a neighborhood school, one of the few remaining in the district. We need to strengthen the bond between this school and the surrounding neighborhood. The school is a natural place for events and gatherings. We are also inspired by initiatives that pair senior citizens with students to escort each other to and from school each morning, not only improving safety but creating important cross-generational bonds.
  • SID.tv. See It Differently TV is a communications approach developed by Strong Towns. We take short video clips a neighborhood to show, in detail, the aspects of placemaking that cannot be grasped by driving by in a car. We plan to shoot the entire neighborhood and make those available online as an educational/outreach device, something that can inspire and start conversations within the neighborhood.
  • Communications Platform. To augment the SID.tv work, we plan to enhance our existing website at www.aBetterBrainerd.org and Facebook page to include events, clinics and other things going on in the target neighborhood. We’ll also be providing a forum for residents to communicate with each other and blog content to stimulate the conversation.
  • Clinics. We plan to hold a number of clinics/workshops within the neighborhood to inspire people with things like gardening, landscaping and home repair. We also plan to do clinics with local builders and developers to teach them how to operate profitably in urban neighborhoods, a skill that has been lost in recent decades where the action has all been focused outside the city. We plan to monitor real estate listings and connect interested builders with this neighborhood to create a more liquid property market.
  • City Advocate. Focusing on our target neighborhood, we will communicate regularly with the city staff and elected/appointed officials. When public projects are proposed, we will advocate for improvements that align with our efforts. We will also propose and advocate for changes in land use regulations, transit service, park maintenance and other aspects of city operation that impair the quality of life in NE Brainerd.

These are some of the initiatives we will seek to employ during the life of our program. We have already started some low level organization and Tactical Urbanism interventions and have a small team of local residents assembled. We’ve done this with relatively little effort, demonstrating to ourselves that we are ready to take this initiative to the next level.

Project Goals and Impact

We will define the success of our work in the same way we suggested in our From the Mayor’s Office essay that success be defined. Specifically, our trajectory will be will have the city of Brainerd, over the next decade: 

  1. Double the tax base of NE Brainerd (8% per year average increase).
  2. Hold budget increases for the city to less than 3% annually, an increase of just 30% over the next decade[5].
  3. Increase the population of NE Brainerd by 50% (4.5% per year average increase).
  4. Hold budget increases for the city to less than 3% annually, an increase of just 30% over the next decade.

To calibrate our results, we will track these metrics in three other, similar neighborhoods (South Brainerd, West Brainerd and North Brainerd). Over the five years of our project, success will be demonstrated by outperforming these other neighborhoods in the area of tax base growth, job growth and population growth.

Strong Towns has a track record of effectively communicating a complex message about the present state of America’s cities. We will use our communication skills and developed channels to share the intentions, progress and results of this pilot project. We will present at local civic groups, meet with school district officials, engage local media and – most critically – keep the city of Brainerd informed.

That brings us to our last goal: we want the city of Brainerd – and cities like it across the state of Minnesota and the entire country – to change the way they approach growth, development and the investment of public dollars. This pilot project will comprehensively demonstrate an alternative approach to the ubiquitous American pattern of development.

Organization, Partners and Networks

The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model of growth that allows America’s towns to become financially strong and resilient. Since 2009, we’ve communicated a powerful message about the financial implications of America’s suburban experiment on our local governments. The Strong Towns blog, Strong Towns podcast and See It Differently (SID.tv) are popular channels for the Strong Towns message, accessed tens of thousands of times each month.

In 2010, we began the Curbside Chat program[6], an effort to communicate a Strong Towns narrative about what is happening with America’s economy and how it impacts the budgets of local governments. While we started off delivering the presentation to small audiences, its popularity has soared. This year, our Executive Director, Charles Marohn, has testified at the Minnesota Legislature, briefed the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Energy, lectured at universities including MIT and shared the Curbside Chat material with thousands of people in dozens of locations across the country. His credentials as a licensed professional engineer as well as a planner accredited by the American Institute of Certified Planners give added credibility to an already powerful message.

Strong Towns remains a small organization. We have one full time staff member and two part time staff (less than 10 hours per week). We augment this staff with lots of volunteers. We have a core group of six volunteers that donate significant time each month (more than 20 hours) to the organization. We have an additional three dozen that have volunteered to fill roles on specific projects and contribute in key ways. Strong Towns also has a mailing list of over 2,000 individuals that have asked to receive information from us. Our Facebook page connects us to 2,200+ and our Twitter feed to an additional 2,700+.

We are also well connected within the Brainerd area. Marohn has been part of a weekly radio segment on a local station since 2001. He has been interviewed countless times for the local newspaper as well as participated in a number of expert panels and forums. His ties in the community are very deep; a graduate of Brainerd High School, Marohn is a sixth-generation resident. He is well known and respected.

This project will require us to move one of our part time staff, Justin Burslie, into a half-time role. Justin also lives in the Brainerd area and is active within the community. He coordinated our test initiatives in preparation for this project and is well-positioned to lead this effort.

For our project to be successful, we will need to work with a number of partners. Those include: 

  • Neighborhood residents
  • Neighborhood business owners
  • Church leaders
  • Public school officials
  • Artists in the live/work units
  • Senior citizens groups
  • Civic organizations such as Rotary, Lions, Sertoma and the Jaycees
  • The Chamber of Commerce
  • The Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation
  • Elected state legislators
  • Local newspaper and radio stations
  • Other community activists
  • Crow Wing County
  • The city of Brainerd

We have good contacts, deep ties and positive relationships with all of these groups. We would seek to actively involve those within our target area. For the others, we will work with them to build support for our initiative, transmit results and effect change on a broader scale.

Resources and Timeline

We are seeking to begin this project in January 2013.

With this funding request, we are seeking to cover the following costs:

Staff Salary (1/2 time professional)

$24,000

Benefits/Employer Costs

$4,800

Communications

$5,000

Organizational Support

$5,000

Web Page Development

$6,000

Materials

$4,000

TOTAL

$48,800

The salary will cover the half time position for one year. Strong Towns makes a contribution to a retirement fund and has to cover employer taxes for each staff member. The communications budget will support the Strong Towns communication framework (email lists, database servers, etc…), which will be utilized extensively on behalf of this project. Money for organizational support will allow us to administer the grant and perform necessary administrative and accounting tasks. The web page development will be a one-time cost to improve the project website, www.aBetterBrainerd.org, as an organizational platform for outreach efforts. Finally, the materials budget will supplement our acquisition of materials (paint, shrubs, etc…) to be used on placemaking projects within the neighborhood.

In addition to the funds we are requesting, we will be doing local fundraising and sponsorships for events, contests and other activities.

We look at this request as seed money to begin this initiative. We are planning this as a five year project. By year five, we are going to seek to have this project entirely paid for by the city of Brainerd, a logical expenditure as the program will be paying large dividends for the community. In the three intervening years between commencing the project and full integration into the city’s budget, we will rely on a mix of local funding, locally-generated donations and a phase in of city investment.

Conclusion

We are very excited about this proposal. It is the culmination of many years of work, study and preparation. We’ve done small scale projects that have satisfied us that we are ready for a larger pilot. As an organization, we are well positioned to perform this work and distribute the results broadly.

Our proposal seeks only a modest level of resources and our project has a potentially very high upside. This is the type of low-risk, high-reward endeavor that are ideal for the non-profit world.

As a final note, Strong Towns has a small office on the edge of the target neighborhood in Brainerd. Our Executive Director, Charles Marohn, grew up in Brainerd and has deep roots in the community. As such, our initiative will not be received as an outside effort to impose a different set of values but as an internal response to the current condition of the community.

Thank you for your consideration. We hope you join us in building strong towns. 


[1] For more details, see the attached November 2012 Edition of the Public Sector Digest.

[2] You can find this series at www.StrongTowns.org. The specific posts are The Cost of Auto Orientation (January 2, 2012) and The Lost Opportunity of Auto Orientation (January 4, 2012).

[3] This is the total value prior to any reduction due to the tax subsidy. The taxable amount would actually be much lower.

[4] We’ve included this series as an attachment to this proposal.

[5] Part of our project will be demonstrating to city officials that, with these goals as a focus and using different methods, the city can grow more productive while spending less money. Ultimately, however, we can only advise city officials and do not control the budget.

[6] More information on the Curbside Chat program, including a booklet and videos of Chats, can be found online at www.CurbsideChat.org