There’s been a significant shift here in my hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota. People and organizations who have long promoted some of the more destructive development practices in our region are now turning their focus downtown. Their rhetoric is great. Their vision is fantastic. I’m excited about the momentum. The stars are aligning.
The main initiative is called River to Rail, a push to connect the Mississippi River to Strong Towns headquarters (and many other cool things) at the Northern Pacific Center. In between these two locations sits our core downtown, a place needing — and starting to receive — a little bit of love. It’s a great concept.
I want to see us do big things, and I think we can—if we pay attention to the little things first.
Mississippi River Walk
The plan includes a Mississippi River Walk, an elevated trail along the east bank of the river passing under the city’s three bridges. This would be incredible. My family and I walk down by the river now, but — except for a couple places — not as close as this trail would take us. What an amazing recreational amenity for the city.
I’m in, but let’s do this first: It would be great to someday walk along the river, but it would be amazing today to be able to safely walk across Washington Street. The traffic there is really fast and scary. The sidewalks are very small and the distance to cross is great. Crossing the Washington Street bridge on foot is terrifying, yet lots of Brainerd residents do it every day.
With some paint, we could re-stripe the lanes and slow down traffic through the core downtown. We could fix the timing on the traffic signals so that, on those days when it’s raining or well below zero, people standing at the light waiting to cross are not asked to wait three or four minutes for permission. We could widen sidewalks and make things safer. If people can cross the street safely, if we tend to their urgent needs, there’ll be more people walking. It's only with more people walking that a river walk becomes a true benefit.
I also think the proposed downtown hotel would be wonderful. This month I’m hosting a retreat in Brainerd for the Strong Towns team and would love to have been able to put them up in the downtown, just a few blocks from my house and the office. This would be a great luxury for the city.
I’m in, but let's do this first: Since we don’t have a hotel in Brainerd, I looked for an AirBnB rental in town. Guess what? There isn’t one. Despite being in the heart of vacationland with tens of thousands of visitors coming to the region each summer week, you can’t rent a single room in Brainerd. Let’s figure that one out.
I wound up renting two houses in nearby Crosby, where there are quite a few AirBnB rentals. Why is Crosby getting these and Brainerd is not? Is it our regulations? Is there a lack of demand here? Let’s build a hotel, but let’s first demonstrate at a small scale that nightly rentals are a viable commodity in Brainerd’s core. I’d like to see my friends in Brainerd’s struggling neighborhoods benefit from that.
I could really use the proposed pedestrian bridge and fully support building it. Most days I walk from my home in North Brainerd to the Northern Pacific Center and, to avoid the danger and discomfort of Washington Street, I walk next to the railroad tracks. It’s not the most pleasant walk; the bridge would be a lot nicer.
So, I support the bridge, but let’s do this first: Right outside my office there are so many people that walk from Southeast Brainerd — one of our poorest neighborhoods — to Northeast Brainerd, just to get to jobs, groceries and medicine. There are so many of them that they’ve worn a path through the ditch along 13th Street. This is constant and happens year-round. Crow Wing County, in coordination with the city of Brainerd, just spent millions rehabbing this stretch, yet no money — zero — was spent improving pedestrian access, despite the obvious need.
Let’s go put in some gravel or asphalt or something to acknowledge these people and ease their daily struggle navigating the city. If we want to really stretch ourselves, let’s plant some trees to give our neighbors some shade. We can improve a lot of people's lives with very little money here, and if we can make small investments like this to slow the decline on this side of town, it would go a long ways towards the revitalization we are all seeking.
I love the idea of a downtown park, especially one that pays homage to our past. Parks improve the quality of life, no doubt. When they are well-placed and well-designed, they add a lot to the tax base as well. Great cities have great squares and I’d love to build one in our core downtown.
Let’s build another park, but let’s do this first: We struggle as a city to maintain the parks we currently have. We also fail to leverage these parks for the gains they should provide our tax base. Let’s figure those two challenges out.
If you’ve been to Gregory Park — which was designed to be our town square — you know it lacks love and attention. Triangle Park on the North side, I'm sad to say, is an embarrassment. Kiwanis and Lum parks have seen some improvements, but they are rather disconnected from the community. My kids play softball at Buffalo Hills park and the girls can’t even get a scoreboard for each field like the boys have, let alone have the grounds well maintained. Mills, Bane, Jaycees… We already have a lot of parks, and none of them have really become an attraction like we’d hoped they would.
I’m all for parks and I would really like one in the core downtown, but it’s clear that our maintenance efforts are spread really thin with the parks we already have. Really thin. If we figure out what’s going on there, we have a chance to make all our existing parks a little better for everyone right now. And if we can do that, we’ll be ready to talk about adding another great park to a city of great parks.
I understand that the River to Rail proposal includes one, and potentially two, parking ramps. While I’m not enthusiastic about this particular proposal, I can see how, if we reached this point, parking ramps would be a huge benefit.
So I’m in for parking ramps, but let’s do this first: Let’s find a way to make really good use of our existing parking.
It seems like there are three truths about the downtown Brainerd parking situation. Truth #1: If we ask people who drive to Brainerd whether there is enough parking, they will say no. Truth #2: If we ask downtown business owners whether the city of Brainerd should provide more free parking, they will say yes. Truth #3: Whenever I go downtown — which is multiple times per week — there are always plenty of places to park within a block of my destination. Always.
The vision of River to Rail is for “significant private investment along with public support,” which I think is a great approach. When it comes to parking, our first step should be to use price to determine the level of public support. I would not install parking meters on the street immediately, but I would start taking steps to meter public lots and develop some of the existing municipal parking space as buildings (aka: destinations).
At some point, we’ll reach a critical mass where great destinations and people willing to pay to park in our city lots will signal that on-street parking should also be metered. None of this money should go into the city budget; it should all go into a separate fund and be spent improving the downtown. We can create a virtuous feedback loop here.
Back when we were making decisions on the reconstruction of South 6th Street, I put together a plan that would have provided more than a hundred on-street parking spaces through the core downtown along South 6th. That plan was rejected — laughed at, actually, by some that are today pushing for River to Rails, but no hard feelings. However, it could still be mostly implemented with some modest changes to the street’s striping plan at a very low cost.
Another low cost / low risk change we could make that would dramatically improve the parking situation is to make crossing Washington Street on foot less dangerous and, if we’re really ambitious, maybe even comfortable. There are hundreds of unused parking spots on the North side just a couple of blocks from the core downtown. Brainerd taxpayers have paid millions for this asphalt and it largely goes unused. Let’s tap into that right now.
If we do these things, the public support is going to signal to us when we’ve crossed that threshold where the demand for parking is going to justify the public expenditure for a public parking ramp. When we get to that day, I’m going to be there cheering for it.
The idea of an amphitheater is really great. I’ve often thought how wonderful it would be to have a place where youth bands can set up and play a couple sets on a weekday night in the summer, where traveling theaters can set up shop when they’re passing through town or where some noteworthy performer can be brought in to entertain us all. Wouldn’t this be wonderful?
I’m there with you on the vision of an amphitheater, but let’s do this first: Let’s do the work we need to do to get our existing performance venues at capacity.
I’ve been a regular at Music in the Park Thursdays during the summer. It’s a short walk from my house and my family often walks over to see who’s playing. Sometimes a crowd turns out, but mostly attendance is pretty sparse. It’s a weird and ineffective space; the crowd sits downhill and looks up at the performers, who themselves are often elevated far off the ground. A redesign of the space or a relocation to the center of the park would make the event more accessible and inviting.
I’m really happy to have Stage North Theater Company operating out of the Franklin Arts Center. They have made some wonderful improvements to that space and have started to draw some large crowds. Still, there's plenty of room for growth there, as well as expansion of both their offerings (music?, movies?) and the Franklin facilities. Let’s get the city to change their mind about a coffee shop there, for starters. Maybe someday we can work up to a brewery. That would be a great boost for the venue.
With the new performing arts center going in at the high school, it's not clear what’s going to happen to Tornstrom, which is a venue I’ve always liked. We’ve also got the theater at CLC, which is cozy but very effective for certain types of productions.
So, we have a lot of performance space capacity, yet I’m on board for more if that’s the direction we’re headed. Let’s figure out what need we’re not yet meeting, then find a way to test that out.
I was in Mashpee Commons on Cape Cod earlier this year and experienced a popup amphitheater — something that cost roughly ten thousand dollars to erect — that was really nice and would allow proof-of-concept before going all in. We could easily do that when we’re ready to give this a try.
Finally, the idea of a children’s museum is enticing. I suspect the concept is more of a placeholder for “something big that is a regional draw” — children’s museum, aquarium, IMAX, etc… all fit into this genre — and I get that. We’ve all been to places that had something like this and I get the idea that, in the middle of the Lakes Region, with hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, in addition to the facilities at the resorts and waterparks, a showpiece in the downtown could potentially be a nice attraction.
I’m open to discussing this, and could be talked into it, but let’s do this first: I think we all agree that, outside of the resorts and the lakes, the biggest attraction in our area is the shopping in downtown Nisswa. It’s always baffled me because, by North America standards, it’s not that great. Yet, each summer when we have guests, we wind up schlepping around the narrow sidewalks and tourist shops of Nisswa.
That’s our market. Those are our shoppers. There is no real reason why downtown Brainerd isn’t a regional shopping magnet and Nisswa a mere afterthought. Some positive developments to renovate buildings and bring in new businesses is a great start. A few more years of that kind of incremental improvement is going to amount to something special. It’s exciting.
Yet, we can energize it if we want. There are countless examples around the country of spaces being split into micro-units to lower startup costs and create instant entrepreneurial energy in a place. I was recently in Huntsville, Alabama, where storage units — yes, storage units — were reconfigured into storefronts with huge success. We can do this kind of thing right now.
And if we want a slightly heavier lift, the historic Lincoln School building is set for demolition — destroying, instead of repurposing, a great building in the core of our downtown while doing a lot of damage to that whole walkable, mixed-use connection thing we’re pushing for.
People are trying to save this building and the concepts that have been floated include a community center, particularly one focused on youth and young entrepreneurs. It doesn’t have the cachet of a children’s museum, but it’s a much lighter lift and arguably would do a lot more to help the citizens of Brainerd. And we could do it right now.
Let's Do Both
I am sure that there will be people who read this and say, “Love your ideas, Chuck. Let’s do both.”
I’m with you. Let’s do both, but let’s first do the things we can do now.
It’s doing the little things first that gives you the credibility to do the big things later. It’s taking small steps now that demonstrates competence to take larger steps in the future. It’s doing the obvious thing sitting right in front of your face that gives you the clarity of vision to fully comprehend that more distant challenge.
We earn the right to do big things by doing the little things well.