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The following is an excerpt from our Neighborhoods First report.

In 2012, I wrote a series of posts for the Strong Towns Blog contrasting the Taco John’s restaurant site along Brainerd’s Washington Street with the same sized “old and blighted” block just up the street to the west. The City Council had approved 26 years of tax subsidies to assist Taco John’s in moving to this new location, an action consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan, zoning codes, engineering approach and all of the professional advice they were receiving. My posts questioned the justification for that decision – tax base growth and job creation – and spelled out some hard facts.

The “old and blighted” block containing two liquor stores, a barber shop, a pawn shop and some other local businesses creates a total tax base that is 41% greater than the brand new Taco John’s. It also provides more jobs, has more small business owners and the businesses there patronize more local professionals and services than the franchise restaurant. In short, the old block is simply more financially productive for the city, even before deducting the subsidy from Taco John’s.

If the city intends to grow the tax base and create jobs and is willing to commit a generation of tax subsidies to do it, why are the results so dismal? More importantly, why do the city’s plans call for more of the same transformation of properties deemed “blighted” to what they call “auto-oriented” throughout this area? 

These questions were met with no small amount of pushback from officials within local government and affiliated organizations. There was an understandable defensiveness but also a sense that our data-driven approach was simply a gratuitous attack on the city. The one question that continued to be thrown back at us was:

“Okay, but what would you have us do differently?”

This is a fair question. In response I wrote a 6,000+ word essay called From the Mayor’s Office describing an alternative model for neighborhood investment. Instead of pursuing grants for big “game changing” projects and offering subsidies to try and get someone to move here, why don’t we focus on using the resources we do have to make the city incrementally better for those residents and businesses that already live here?

If we do that, we won’t need to provide subsidies and chase prosperity. Prosperity will find us.

From the Mayor’s Office was picked up and published by a number of journals in the United States and Canada, but had little impact locally. As I spoke with elected officials, staff members and others around town about changing an approach that wasn’t working, the feedback I received was consistent.

Northeast Brainerd is full of renters. They’re not vested in the community. They have no pride of ownership. It’s a bunch of meth labs and drug addicts over there. Why would anybody move to Northeast when they can get a home with a three car garage in Baxter?

Fortunately, there was significant turnover in the city council in 2012 and a new set of priorities established earlier this year. At the top of the new council’s agenda: neighborhood investments and stable financial planning.

These two priorities go hand in hand. Only by making strategic neighborhood investments, and forgoing the high risk / low return projects that have characterized our approach in recent decades, can the city stabilize their finances. A portfolio of low risk, high return neighborhood projects is not only within the city’s budget, but it plays to the strengths of the community.

This report – Neighborhoods First; A low risk, high return strategy for a better Brainerd – outlines how this community can make small, incremental investments in just one part of one neighborhood. By watching how our neighbors use the city, by asking them where their daily struggles are, by getting out on the street and opening our hearts and minds to what is actually going on, we can discern what the pressing needs are. These are our high return investments.

If we apply this approach to all of the community’s neighborhoods, we’ll have a solid, long term investment strategy that we own and control and that all our residents and businesses are guaranteed to benefit from.

There is a sense of urgency here. Brainerd suffered terribly in the last economic downtown when we discovered that having 42% of the budget funded by local government aid made us very fragile to the whims of lawmakers in St. Paul. With the nation’s economic trajectory still in doubt, we need to be taking this time to shore up our position and build resiliency to the next downturn.

The team at A Better Brainerd has spent the past six months getting to intimately know the neighborhood and the people who work and live there. We’ve done little projects to plant trees, paint crosswalks, put up flags to help people cross Mill Avenue and set up benches for people to use. We’ve received a lot of positive feedback, but have also been directed to stop our activities by a small number of officials from both the city of Brainerd and Crow Wing County.

We have no intention of stopping, and in fact we hope others join us in advocating for a different approach. We want to be the city’s partner, just as the people of Northeast Brainerd want to be the city’s partner, but the city needs to meet its residents and business owners where they are. This report shows one powerful way to do that.

Let’s all work together to build a better Brainerd.

(Top photo source: Better Block Facebook page)

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