Baxter and the Image of (fading) Middle Class Wealth

(This posting is another in our Brainerd/Baxter Strong Town series, which focuses on land use practices in my neighboring hometowns and, in doing so, highlights problems with the current approach small towns take to growth and development, providing real-world strategies for growing Strong Towns. If you have not read the kickoff article for this series, I would recommend it before reading this post. You can also read other posts in this series by clicking here.)

My grandfather used to tell me stories of the Great Depression. They were always good stories - those kind where things are tough, much tougher than today, but they pulled through and were better for it. I heard about when he was a young man and could not find a job so he took a position working for a farmer. His pay was that he got to eat at the farmer's table and sleep in his barn. The experience made my grandfather, and people of his generation, place a high value on every penny they made later in life. When I graduated from college, my grandfather chastised me for taking a job in the private sector instead of for the DOT, where I had done an internship and seemingly could have had a job. "You'd have a job for life," was his reasoning. At age 22, nothing sounded scarier to me.

I also remember growing up and hearing stories about Native Americans and how they lived. The legend was that the rough conditions they lived in combined with their reverence for nature forced them to stretch everything they had to the maximum. I was told that an Irriquois used every bone and fiber from a deer when they killed one. That seems a little bit of a stretch, especially since we now understand that that humans migrating from Asia to a North American continent that had developed for millions of years without them caused mass extinction amongst species not adapted to this new, efficient predator (a plug here for one of the greatest books of all time: Guns, Germs and Steel). Even so, the idea of making the most of what you have is a powerful one. I do not think it bad to romanticize a self-sufficient culture in this way, good history or not.

I start with these two stories to frame my first posting in this series focusing on the City of Baxter. While I have written seven times about Brainerd thus far in the series, it has taken me a while to write about Baxter. It is not that there is more to offer in way of analysis in Brainerd - quite the contrary. It is just that Baxter is so far gone that I almost feel like I don't know where to start. Here is what I said in the kickoff article:

Baxter, while on top today, has a much more precarious future. It has developed in an incredibly inefficient way that is starting to manifest itself with the early signs of financial stress. The second generation of infrastructure, especially if done in a climate of slower growth, could financially bring Baxter to its knees. Reconfiguring Baxter into something efficient and financially sustainable is going to take a complete brain and nervous system transplant (or shock therapy).

There is an image I want to put into our readers' minds to contrast those images of my grandfather struggling through the Great Depression and the Native Americans living frugally off the land, and that is of a road in Baxter called Mountain Ash Drive. This road, which I must have ridden my bike on a thousand times as a kid, contains the exact same level of development as it did twenty-five years ago when I biked past. The same homes. The same 4,000 feet of pavement. Only now, it looks like this:

If you are having trouble seeing, it is subtle, but at the top of each hill is now a fire hydrant. These hydrants, spaced roughly 400 feet apart, are the only visual evidence that water service has been provided along the entire length of the road. It was done as part of a project that plopped a school down in the middle of the adjacent forest (the school is called Forestview, in fact).  The pipe was needed to provide the necessary flow rate, redundancy and pressure for the school's fire-fighting capacity.

Think about my grandfather living in the barn, then think about the Native Americans using the deer to its fullest extent, and then ask yourself:

How rich does a town have to be to install and maintain hundreds of thousands of dollars of infrastructure which is only significantly utilized by a government building that pays no property tax?

Was there no more-efficient way? Was there no better place to locate the school? Are we so extravagantly wealthy that this abysmal return on the investment is immaterial?

This is my struggle with Baxter, and it is everywhere you look. Like many auto-era communities caught up in the modern approach to development, Baxter builds and sizes its infrastructure for future growth. This has allowed them to grow amazingly fast - in a couple of short decades Baxter has grown from a fraction the size of neighboring Brainerd to actually have a larger tax base. It has also caused them to grow in a manner that is spread-out and, in a word, inefficient. 

You can drive all over Baxter and find large sections of infrastructure that serves nothing. You can find roads to swamps, sewers that serve forests, fire hydrants protecting vacant ground and fully serviced lots converted to stormwater holding ponds. But if you know what you are looking at in the developed areas, it is actually worse than those obvious examples of waste. The number of subdivisions where tens of thousands of dollars worth of infrastructure serves homes valued at low multiples of that investment are staggering. An engineer visiting from a foreign land would conclude we are indisputably the wealthiest nation on earth to be able to afford to get so little return from our public investments.

But can we really afford it?

While the current economy has put some dents in the overall strategy of building to induce more growth (or building in anticipation of future growth), in the next edition of this series I'll examine some of the numbers and assumptions behind this strategy. Baxter's first generation of infrastructure has been rolled up nicely into thirty year mortgages, but the second generation that will be brought about by maintenance and repairs to the current systems is going to be be paid for much differently.