The weekend before last the family and I packed into the car for a trip to Itasca State Park, the Minnesota park that hosts the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It is fantastic place I would recommend to all Minnesota visitors any time of the year, but the fall is my particular favorite. Even though the leaves had not yet started to really turn, it was a beautiful two days.

Unfortunately, the natural beauty of the park was bookended by the utter devastation I witnessed on the way in and the way out in one of Central Minnesota's (formerly?) most charming small towns, Park Rapids. Park Rapids was not subjected to a natural disaster. No, this was much worse - a man-made (engineer-made) disaster of monumental proportions.

First, let me show you a photo I took that weekend of the Park Rapids that everyone loves and cherishes. This is the place they put in the tour guides. The place the locals bring their friends. The place resorts refer their guests. The place that people like me drive to visit.

Downtown Park Rapids, September of 2009.Here you witness the strong sense of place and character of an authentic small town. The buildings are lined up and front the street in a way that creates a dynamic public realm. The width to height ratio of the buildings across the public space is stretched, but not exceeded. The highway feel of the wide paved surface is corrected by the quirky middle lane of parking. These two blocks make Park Rapids one of the most memorable little towns around.

Over the years, Park Rapids has given the impression that, instead of building on the design principles of this strong and unique center they were instead going the way of most small towns and adopting the "no-car-left-behind" approach to town building. As I would get up there once a year or so and take the time to drive around, I would see the telltale signs of an engineering-led approach: wide streets where they are not needed, a lack of pedestrian connectivity, where pedestrian connectivity existed a misunderstanding of what makes a place pedestrian-friendly, infrastructure run inefficiently to the far outskirts of the community, etc... 

I held out hope because, despite the nondescript and unremarkable development happening on the periphery and the transformation of strategic areas to large-lot, suburban-style development, this town still had a solid core. I had imagined to myself that Park Rapids was far enough away from the highest growth areas of Minnesota to avoid the crazy-money that induces small towns to do tragic things.

Then two weekends ago I came around the bend and saw this:

Anytown USA, September 2009.

My jaw dropped and my heart sank into my stomach. Five lanes of asphalt, as far as the eye could see. They somehow even managed to incorporate the worthless and wasteful center lane. No sense of place. No character. Even the Pamida - the small town's original sprawl - was boarded up and replaced next door with a Wal-Mart (and yet more surface parking). It was a big, deep open cut through the heart of the town.

Just to be clear to those not familiar with Park Rapids, the two pictures here are of streets that run perpendicular to each other. They did not directly destroy that quaint downtown to build this freeway. But the effect is ultimately the same. By choosing the highway-oriented development approach, Park Rapids is making Main Street into a museum instead of an economically diverse and viable downtown. This guarantees it will never be more than a two-block tourist novelty, all the while the city spends millions subsidizing inefficient development on the periphery of town.

In April of 2010, the Minnesota Twins will play outdoor baseball in the new Target Field. When their current home, the Metrodome, was built in the early 1980's, it was the last in a series of "modern" domed stadiums. Shortly thereafter, the retro-stadium movement kicked in and we have been building truly exquisite ballparks ever since. If Minnesota had just waited a few more years, we would have had our eyes opened to the possibilities and a generation of baseball fans may not have suffered under the teflon sky.

Financially for small towns the days are numbered for this type of insanely-scaled and financed project. Regular readers of this blog understand that we simply don't have the money anymore. That is what makes this all an even greater tragedy. Had Park Rapids been more "lucky" than the 1980's Twins' ownership, they may not have had the funds to build the small town version of yesterday's stadium. Had they not, they would be in position tomorrow to really grow a Strong Town for the next generation and beyond.