There is no simple approach to building a Strong Town. There are no one or two universal ideas that, if implemented, will change the trajectory of America's cities, towns and neighborhoods. This is hard work. For a city to get there, current priorities need to be realigned and everyone -- from the mayor, the city engineer, the maintenance worker and everyone in between -- needs to be working to get more value out of our existing investments.
As a finale to the series we've been running that began with a simple comparison of the tax base from two nearby blocks -- one developed in the traditional pattern and one in the suburban -- I am going to share what I would advise a city's mayor to say in response. This is written as an address from the mayor to the staff. I'm once again using my hometown of Brainerd as an example but, of course, this narrative could be translated to most communities across the county. This is Part 2 of the address. You should read Part 1 first to give this post context.
Economic Development Director
You've just heard me address the City Engineer and City Planner and redirect their efforts 180 degrees. I have the same challenge for you because we need a completely different approach.
Providing a 26-year Tax Increment Financing subsidy to move a fast food business four blocks up the street is an embarrassment. That type of project is not worthy of our efforts. But I understand why you do these things; you have to show results or you are criticized. Your job has always been a "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" affair.
I want to redirect your efforts from economic hunting -- the idea of finding that business from outside the community and luring it to come here -- to economic gardening. I want to grow jobs locally, not import them. My inspiration is Littleton, Colorado, where the economic gardening approach has helped them create thousands of jobs without any tax subsidy. And these are not fragile jobs -- ones that are threatened once the subsidy goes away -- but jobs that will be deeply rooted in the community and, thus, have tremendous staying power.
I don't want to bring in another business that adds fifty new jobs. I want you to focus on creating one new job in fifty different businesses. This is much more than just business retention and expansion. Read their stuff. I'll even budget for you to go to their conference and training sessions.
The downside of this approach is that there will be no more ribbon cuttings. No more grand openings. No more big events where you and I can stand there with a hardhat and shovel while we celebrate a "successful" transaction where we gave away millions to bring some new jobs to town. Those things play well politically for both of us because they provide the illusion that we are actually doing something and making progress. I actually want to do something. I actually want to make progress.
So from this day forward, so long as you swear off the "hunting" approach and go about "gardening", you are getting a long, long leash from the city. When you garden, things don't grow overnight. We're going to measure your success over time with the same metrics I brought up earlier. The goal is to increase jobs in this neighborhood by 150% in ten years. I want to see actions, but I won't demand results for at least five years.
And by the way, we'll still be bringing jobs and new businesses in from outside the community. The only difference will be that we won't be paying them to come -- they will want to be here. If we are successful -- and we will be -- they will be paying us to come here.
To switch gears slightly, I also have a pet project that will benefit this neighborhood that I want you to put in motion. On the old railroad site, we have some old buildings that are currently zoned Industrial that are envisioned to be used for office or manufacturing sites. I don't think that is a viable use, and apparently the market doesn't either because very little has happened. I want to re-purpose this site as Central Minnesota's entertainment district.
Consider this: there is a general consensus that a major drag -- maybe the primary burden -- on our commercial downtown is the existence of a number of low-class drinking establishments. We're the center of a tourist mecca yet we are the lowest of the low in terms of entertainment options. When I look at the railroad site, I see a place that has the potential to be one part Bourbon Street, one part Downtown Disney. A row of clubs, each with entertainment where you can walk back and forth between them any time of year.
We strategically phase out liquor licenses in the downtown (or require 50% food service for renewal there) and phase them in at our new "entertainment district". Now Brainerd is a regional entertainment destination, as it should be. And with that amenity within walking distance of our neighborhood (and an easy transit stop to others), it will make living in Brainerd more valuable.
Parks and Recreation Director
I would love to have your job because you're going to have a ton of fun in your new role. Let's quit chasing grants -- you spend too much time on that right now -- and we don't need any more auto-based parks, so stop trying to build or expand them. What we need to do, to create value, is to embed recreation into the fabric of the neighborhood.
I want you to brainstorm and come up with ten ideas by next week. We'll chat about them and see what we can do to make them happen. Here are a handful to get you started.
- We need to have a Ciclovia -- or better yet, a monthly or weekly event where the streets are closed to auto traffic and turned over to people and cyclists. Let's turn the public realm into a recreational asset for the people of this neighborhood.
- To build on that, I want to use the streets for low-cost recreation. There is no city park anywhere near this neighborhood, but there is a lot of public space. Let's close off a block, get some nets and make a street hockey space. Or soccer. Or we set up a hopscotch block for an afternoon -- some chalk won't cost much and we have a lot of cones. I'm just talking about one block for a few hours a couple times a week. Move it around. Get volunteers to staff it. Now this neighborhood has some new life and purpose.
- What about a block party? Let's have a contest for whatever house can improve their front yard most dramatically over the summer. Have people sign up at the beginning of the summer. Let the neighborhood residents be the judge in August. Whoever wins we buy 20 pizzas and a cooler of pop for, close down their block, bring in some tables and chairs (and maybe some music) and have a nice little party. I'm sure one of the local pizza places would give us a deal as a "sponsor" and we could promote it all with public service announcements. Even if we can't get a sponsor, this isn't going to cost us more than a few hundred dollars. That's a lot of mileage for just a little bit of money.
- I think you should consider holding a scavenger hunt throughout the neighborhood, something digital along the lines of Snap Shot City. Again, this is not going to cost much but it will get people out in their neighborhood, looking at it critically, taking photos to share and then interacting with their neighbors. Find a restaurant in the neighborhood that wants to host the party at the end and it is a win:win for everyone.
See what I mean? This job should be an absolute blast. And don't let anyone tell you that this is trivial stuff. Making this neighborhood a fantastic place to live is a critical strategy for meeting our goals of doubling the tax base and increasing the population by 50% in a decade.
Let me give you one other project to work on. I said that there is not a public park anywhere near this neighborhood, and that is true, but it doesn't have to be. Running along the west side is an area that -- by lucky chance -- creates a potential greenway that runs the entire length of the town. At each end is a park with ball fields and hockey rinks and in the middle is the former Franklin school athletic grounds. Right now we're hardly using this space and, where we do, we use it to store salt and sand or stockpile snow.
With a little bit of effort and imagination, this unused space can be transformed into an amazing recreational amenity that will serve not just this neighborhood but the entire city. Now I'm not pretending this will be simple and/or that there are not things to be worked out, but as a medium-term project, this is a low-cost, high-return endeavor. I want you to look into it and get things going.
Housing Rehabilitation Agency Director
Why is it that everyone believes you simply deal with housing for poor people? We have a city of nothing but housing for poor people -- that's part of our fundamental problem. The approach of the HRA -- whether it is investing in new growth on the periphery of town or doing work to create more "affordable" housing within town -- is completely missing the mark.
Now to be fair, you are not just worried about "affordable" but are also tasked with the quality of the housing stock. A tar paper shack may be affordable, but it is not a very high quality place to be. Unfortunately the tools and guidance we've given you creates a huge incentive for you to simply buy the cheapest house on the block, tear it down, and build something that adds little value in return. That's not progress; that's institutionalizing decline.
What I want you to do from now on is simple. On each block, I want you to identify the house one cheaper than the median value. I want you to find a private sector partner to help you buy it, tear it down and redevelop it. When you do this, I want the project to retain at least one "affordable" unit; whether that is an accessory apartment, a granny flat or a room for rent over the garage, it does not matter.
Now what will this accomplish? By focusing away from the cheapest house on the block, you're probably going to do fewer projects -- although I wouldn't count on that if you lever your funds right -- but each project is going to matter more. When we improve the value of the neighborhood by taking the medium value property and making it a high value property, we can then sit back and watch the market take care of transforming all those low value properties without us having to spend a dime.
In other words, you're no longer a bottom feeder. You are a catalyst for big change. And while bringing about big change, you're embedding affordable housing within each block in a way that will be socially-viable over the long-term. No more concentrations of poverty -- our neighborhoods will be fantastic places for people of all incomes to live side by side.
I want you to start an avalanche of redevelopment. You don't do that by throwing snowballs. You start an avalanche by poking the mound of snow strategically in the place that will start the pile moving. Your job is to find that spot and get the pile moving.
I appreciate what you are trying to do and the effort you put in. The limited mandate you have matches the tools we've provided you. Unfortunately, I can't put a lot more resources into your efforts, but I can change your mandate and focus your limited resources on an approach that would be far more productive.
Today you run Dial-a-Ride, which is essentially a very expensive taxi service. I realize this service fills a need -- and I'm not sure how to address that need as it relates to those outside of the city limits -- but we can meet that need within the city and do so much more if we change to a fixed route service.
I've sketched out a very rough 3-1/2 mile route that provides service within easy walking distance of the neighborhood we are focusing on. It connects that neighborhood with the downtown, the mall and grocery store, government offices, churches and parks. If we designed a similar system on the south side of town, we could also connect the clinic, many other parks, schools and pretty much the rest of the core neighborhoods.
I'll leave it to you to redeploy your units based on what destinations people most frequently use, but the bottom line is that we need the people of North Brainerd to have another option. They need to be able to walk up to three or four blocks and get on a bus that will get them to the key destinations in town (and note that doesn't include the WalMart, Target and new Costco in the neighboring town). If we can improve the convenience by putting these units on a GPS tracker that people can monitor from the phone, all the better.
While our mayor's meeting is getting long, I think it is worth our time to continue and get everyone pushing on the same wall with the same goals in mind. In the next (and probably last) post in this series, our mayor will address the Public Safety Coordinator, Public Utilities Supervisor, Maintenance Supervisor, the invited State Legislator, the School District Superintendent, the Council of Local Churches and a representative from the local non-profit organizations.
Thank you to everyone that has been following this series from the beginning of 2012 until now. We've appreciated your feedback. If you would like to support our efforts to get this message out to more communities, please consider supporting us with a tax-deductible donation. We are a 501(c)3 non-profit working to spread a timely message of resiliency across the United States. Thank you for your support.