One of the frustrating things people often cite about the Strong Towns approach is that we don’t often prescribe an outcome. We don’t, for example, say public debt is bad always and forever and will ruin our society. There are times when debt is a useful, even necessary, tool. Our approach has been to help people think through what they are trying to accomplish with public debt to determine if their plans are worthy of the obligation.
If we said public debt is bad always and forever—or that TIF or parking or apartments or stroads without sidewalks or take your pick of topics—that would make Strong Towns easy to understand, although ultimately not very helpful. The world is not that neat. In fact, it’s incredibly messy. Frustratingly messy.
It’s the complex, adaptive nature of cities described by Jane Jacobs that our movement embraces. That’s why a lot of professionals struggle with Strong Towns thinking. Robert Moses might have been wrong, but he had a clarity of vision that led to action. Many desire Jane Jacobs outcomes, but have no tolerance for messiness of thought or action it requires. For them, if Robert Moses had had the right vision—their vision—he would have been a great man.
It’s with this understanding (and a lot of doubt and anxiety) that I approach a current dilemma in my hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota: Do we use public debt—a lot of public debt—to save an historic landmark, or do we tear it down and move on?
The question would be easier to answer if the landmark were a building that could be put to productive use. I’ve been an advocate here for saving Historic Lincoln School, a Depression-era school building that needs some love but remains structurally sound. The school district wants to tear it down for another parking lot in a city whose dominating physical feature is parking spaces. There are sound investments to be made here, ones that would put this building productively on the tax rolls and potentially even become a catalyst for other investment.
This particular landmark isn’t a building, however. It’s our historic water tower, a feature so uniquely Brainerd you may have to be from here to be charmed by it (and even then, many are not). Last week, we hosted the entire Strong Towns team in Brainerd, and the consensus reaction seemed to fall somewhere between underwhelmed and confusion. You really like it?
Yes, I love it. As a kid, I remember dreaming of the castle tower in the middle of town. I always wanted to go up there and play. It’s the most dominating feature in the skyline. I can see it from here at the office, lit up at night. Like most things my ancestors and their peers did here before World War II, I love the hubris of it. Let’s not build a water tower; let’s build a castle water tower.
Here’s the history of it as printed in the local paper:
Designed by L.P. Wolff, the Brainerd historic water tower was constructed between 1919-22 when a new water system was implemented in the city. It stands at 134 feet high, at one time featuring a maximum capacity of 300,000 gallons housed in a bowl created by a single pouring of concrete.
It's one of two water towers by the architect still standing—the other being the Pipestone water tower—and it was the first all-concrete elevated water depository used by a municipality in the United States. Retired in 1959-60 from use, the historic water tower evolved from practical to symbolic purposes, elevated to a status as an icon of the city, an imposing presence on the Brainerd skyline and an image emblemized on the city's seal. It was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1974.
In a Strong Towns mindset, it’s not difficult to understand what those 1920s Brainerd residents were doing. The main artery in and out of town was the railroad. The tower sat right next to the depot (R.I.P., 1968) amid of collection of the most valuable real estate, and nicest structures, in the area. If you’re going to spend the money on a water tower, you should put in that fractional bit of extra capital to make the real estate around it more valuable.
Today, surrounded by stroads, a strip mall and parking lots, the historic water tower comes across as a white elephant. That was not the case back then. I think about my ancestors and feel more than a modest amount of shame—and some anger—over what we did with what they gave us. There is a sentimental obligation in my soul to not let this structure go.
Yet it serves no real purpose beyond the sentimental. And with us committing this summer to another generation—or more—that has to live with a nasty stroad running through the center of town, it’s going to take a lot of extra effort for the city to evolve into a productive place again around this water tower. If the historic water tower is going to transform from white elephant at the intersection of stroad and stroad to the symbolic center of a functional and strong downtown Brainerd, a lot of heavy lifting is going to have to take place.
And that heavy lifting is going to require capital, money we don’t seem likely to have even if we forgo borrowing an additional $3 million or more to fix the tower. Question #10 on the Strong Towns Strength Test asks whether the city spends more than 10% of its locally-generated revenue on debt service. The last time I calculated that for Brainerd, we were over 100%. I know things have changed and some of that debt has come off the books, but I doubt that much of it has. And while the list of other critical obligations grows each day, I lack confidence that local government aid—that is, annual aid from the state that makes up a huge portion of our budget—will survive the next recession.
It seems the matter is going to be on the ballot this fall as a non-binding referendum. While the oddly specific cost estimate for something so non-routine raises all kinds of red flags for me—$2,443,238 is the kind of silly number that destroys credibility— it’s hard for me to see myself not voting for it.
And it’s hard to see me not regretting that vote afterward. That's one of the many costs of living in a fragile place.