There are probably few people who live in the Brainerd Lakes Area here in Central Minnesota that fly more frequently than I do. I'm what in the industry would be called a "business traveler", someone with status due to my frequent travels. Although we have an airport here in Brainerd, I've not flown out of it for a couple of years, largely due to convenience but also due to cost.

Like most small town airports, there are not a lot of flights in and out. Those going out that fit any type of sensible connection tend to leave really early in the morning. If I'm on this flight, it forces me to waste a couple of hours sitting at MSP waking up waiting for a connecting flight. If my connection is at 1:00 PM -- pretty typical for an afternoon or evening arrival -- I'll sit there for five hours. Yuck.

The flights home are worse. After working long days on the road sharing the Strong Towns message, I'm generally exhausted and just want to be home. There is nothing more depressing than landing in Minneapolis at 4PM, knowing I could get home to tuck my kids in bed if I had driven, yet having to sit there five hours waiting for the connecting flight. 

There is also the delay and cancellation factor. The last year I flew regularly out of my hometown airport was 2014. That year, 20% of flights were delayed and 6% were canceled altogether. It appears the statistics have improved, but I'm already soured. There were a couple of times when I had paid for a flight out of Brainerd that I wound up driving down to make my connection because the local flight had been canceled. Why didn't I just do that in the first place and save myself the stress and hassle.

Of course, I only live slightly more than two hours from the airport. It's not like that's a long ways. There is a shuttle service -- recently merged with another regional shuttle service -- that runs multiple trips a day down to the airport. It's pretty cheap, I can often sleep or, at least, get some work done.

I'm positive there are tourism reasons why the airport has value and also, potentially, some manufacturing and high-end service jobs that make use of the facility as well. I don't have those statistics and could not begin to estimate the economic impact, but I find it hard to believe that the half-filled flights I was taking are make-or-break for the local economy. With so many viable alternatives -- driving, renting a car, taking a shuttle -- that are far more convenient and no more expensive (often less), I'm at a loss to explain the value of the airport. If we spend a dollar supporting the airport, does the city recoup that dollar from somewhere in the chain of transactions? If we do, I can not begin to identify where. I strongly suspect we don't.

So, in my eyes, the regional airport is one of these quality-of-life amenities that we -- along with the county -- have decided is worth the ongoing expense. Of course, there are a ton of state and federal subsidies -- and accompanying economic development propaganda -- to sweeten the deal. Most residents of the city would not notice if the airport closed down, even if we counted secondary impacts. Contrast this with huge cuts in the fire department, police department, parks or street maintenance, all of which are keenly felt by residents.

All of this has made our willingness to commit to borrow millions of dollars we don't have, and don't know where to find, building a project we don't need to serve the airport all the more strange.

A few years ago, the airport was "improved" (I use quotes for that because I'm so sick of the moral dimension of how engineers use that word -- who are they to say what an improvement really is) and those changes resulted in the state fire marshal notifying the city that fire fighting capacity at the airport needed to be expanded. The residents of Brainerd received this information when a massive request for aid was made to the state for help in running water out to the airport. This seemed absurd to me because, as an engineer, I was fairly confident that the fire marshal did not demand municipal water but simply more capacity, something that could have been handled relatively inexpensively with a pump and tank. I contacted the fire marshal and confirmed that, something no elected official or the newspaper has apparently bothered to do (I sent it to them but more on that in a moment). 

I've been vocal in opposing this unnecessary and ridiculously expensive project. The local paper wrote an editorial disagreeing with me. I've used the project in talks around the country as a prime example of a bureaucracy birthing a project, selling it to the elites of a community (which is a really bizarre thing in a small town) and then continuing on with it regardless of how ridiculous it becomes. We've gone from an original estimate of $7 million to $9 million and then to $10 million and now potentially to $14 million. For comparison, each year we tax our residents about $2.5 million. This is a huge project and we've still not even had a public hearing, let alone any broader public conversation. 

Which is really dangerous. This project is not the only alternative, but it has been presented to area leaders that way. That falsehood -- and if a member of the professional staff asserted it publicly I would call it a lie -- has persisted. The lack of a community dialog ensures that will continue.

Here's the local paper from two years ago in their response to my column:

Marohn’s guest column contained several interesting arguments but he seemed to skirt around the very real problem facing the Brainerd airport — lack of consistent water pressure that led the state fire marshal to mandate improvements be made to the system by 2016. What’s to be done when the use of the airport’s terminal is at risk in the not so distant future?

Two years later, here are council members speaking about why they still support the project, despite the inflated cost:

Johnson said he has a lot of concerns about how to pay for the project. But, he said, the city was put in an unfortunate position when the state fire marshal told the airport it needed to upgrade its water infrastructure and fire suppression system in order to comply with state standards.

And another:

Borkenhagen referred to the state fire marshal's mandate for the airport as an unfunded mandate. It's a requirement passed down from the federal or state government, he said, without a way to fund that requirement.

"We owe it to each other to all come together and figure out ways to make it happen," Borkenhagen said.

And another:

Bevans likes the airport utility extension project, he said, as it's necessary in order to meet the mandate from the state fire marshal.

I estimate a pump and a tank would cost $300,000. I've heard this called a "stop gap" measure. Let's pretend that it is (although it isn't) but let's pretend it would only last a decade and then would need to be totally replaced. For the amount of money we're planning to spend, we could do thirty stopgaps -- three hundred year's worth -- and that's a ridiculously pessimistic life span.

So why are we so obsessed with the bigger project? It's really simple: growth. The city's staff looks at this as a growth project. They've sold the commissions, council and local legislators on it. The local governmentish entities -- local EDA group, the Chamber, etc... -- are all on board because growth. This is a project to create growth and the fire marshal is simply the excuse.

Here's the most bizarre part of this and the reason why, if Brainerd were a private company, every single professional staff member in a leadership position on this would lose their job. Growth is meant to improve the tax base. We spend money, the tax base grows, we get more tax revenue. That only happens, however, if the land is in the city. I had assumed all along that it was -- nobody is stupid enough to spend millions on a growth project and then not even have the land within the city -- yet I was wrong.

The annexation may bring in some property tax revenue, council member Chip Borkenhagen said, but it will cost the city much more to provide services to the airport.

"Our staff is already spread thin the way it is," Borkenhagen said.

The city of Brainerd will have to carry the debt from the bond issue, Scheeler said, while the "growth that's going to happen in Oak Lawn Township" will benefit the township and not the city.

City Administrator Jim Thoreen emphasized the city had not made a decision on the annexation and the purpose of the meeting was to hear the concerns of council members.

There are two ways to look at this mess. The first instinct is to call everyone involved incompetent and remedy that situation by taking away power and giving it to someone more qualified, likely a series of state or regional experts with some commissioners for a veneer of representation. This is the kind of thinking that has taken away almost all discretion for taxation policy, land use regulation and transportation design away from local governments. These people are idiots, we can't trust them, we need to make sure people who know what they are doing make these decisions. 

This project never would have gotten to this point if (a) cities weren’t desperate for growth and (b) cities weren’t given the means to borrow beyond their means.

A more thoughtful reaction is to recognize here that the problem is not the idiots in the asylum but the fact that you've given them a bomb to blow themselves up. The state takes away discretion on taxation but allows cities to borrow -- in a myriad of opaque ways -- as much as they want. This project never would have gotten to this point if (a) cities weren't desperate for growth and (b) cities weren't given the means to borrow beyond their means. A better approach would be to allow cities to set their own taxation policies customized to their local economies and objectives but limit their ability to blow themselves up by capping debt service payments to 10% of locally collected revenue.

We have a national economy in which exists states, and state economies in which exist cities. We obsess over the national economy and all of the accompanying statistics that are supposed to indicate success or failure. This is like being a baseball fan and obsessing over the state of Major League Baseball. No normal person does that. What we should have is a nation of cities and regions that, together, form a national economy. We should obsess over the success of cities and regions as fans obsess over their different MLB teams in their different markets. Is the farm system healthy? Do they have a good core of talent? Are they committed to too many long term contracts? In MLB there are many different ways to succeed and they vary based on the market. It's the same with cities.

When we focus on national GDP and unemployment, we end up distorting the local conversation, overwhelming our dialog with perverse incentives and abstract notions of growth and jobs. We end up building multi-million dollar water lines that are not needed in cities that are struggling, where people can't safely cross the street and there is no money to fix what we have, inducing those places to take on millions in debt they can't afford. If we focused on cities instead, we could break through the illusion of wealth and start to ask some more informative questions on how we're going to actually make people's lives better and what it is going to take to make a place a strong town.

Related stories