Competing visions were aired Wednesday night at the Rosenmeier forum on economic development, with much of the talk centering on the wisdom of Brainerd’s College Drive and Taco John’s projects.
Panel member Charles Marohn, executive director of Strong Towns, criticized the College Drive project as a $9 million shortcut out of town and the Taco John’s project as an unwise, 26-year tax-incremental financing project for a fast food franchise that disconnected the business from its nearby neighborhood.
The TIF financing for the Washington Street restaurant, Marohn said, “as a long-term strategy for our community is a loser.”
He said that after the TIF subsidies the tax value of the Taco John’s block was about $830,000 compared to the adjacent block — the one where Esser’s Warehouse Liquors and a pawn shop are located — where the tax value is $1.1 million. Marohn went on to describe the liquor store’s block as the “worst commercial block in the city of Brainerd.” Marohn criticized the removal of sidewalks connecting the nearby residential neighborhood to the restaurant and labeled the project as “auto oriented,” which creates a problem for neighbors who can drive to Baxter’s competing services.
“Once they get in their car, Brainerd loses,” Marohn said.
Speeds on Highway 210 should be lowered and the restaurant should have been better connected with its neighborhood, Marohn said.
“That highway is a cancer,” he said.
Other panelists said they didn’t think the redevelopment of the Taco John’s was a step backwards in development.
Sheila Haverkamp, executive director of the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp., said Taco John’s was an example of a case where the business community drives how development occur.
Cheryal Lee Hills, executive director of the Region Five Development Corporation, said Taco John’s was a Band-Aid approach and that governments needed to adopt ordinances and comprehensive plans and needed to stick to them.
Lisa Paxton, chief executive officer of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber, said she had never heard of a vision of making the Highway 210 corridor more pedestrian friendly.
Marohn said he had nothing against Taco John’s and that his relatives ran the franchise.
Marohn said the College Drive road project money could have accomplished more for a fraction of the cost if they striped lanes for bicycles, reduced the “obnoxiously wide roads,” and created a more walkable atmosphere that might have encouraged college instructors to live nearby.
The economic development forum, conducted at the Central Lakes College’s Brainerd campus in the Chalberg Theatre, was a wide-ranging discussion which also touched on affordable housing and transportation. The panel also included Mark Ostgarden, Brainerd city planner. The forum was sponsored by the Rosenmeier Center for State and Local Government.
Marohn advised local governmental units to keep taxes down over a long period of time, grow markets for their businesses and reduce regulation.
Ostgarden said city officials often have difficulty articulating their vision and creating one can be a messy process.
“The first thing we have to do is have a vision,” Ostgarden said. “Unless we do that we are not going to put ourselves in a position to compete economically.”
The Brainerd city planner decried a rumor that Brainerd was not business friendly, stating the city’s ability to work with businesses is as good or better as any other community in the state.
Haverkamp agreed the city of Brainerd was very receptive to working with businesses.
“Overall, I feel our communities do very well,” she said.
Ostgarden said while many cities would like to see a large company move in with hundreds of jobs, those occurrences are one in a million.
Marohn noted how Brainerd has grown horizontally but not vertically and not by filling in key locations. He challenged the city to absorb half of Crow Wing County’s projected growth of 25,000 without investing in one more foot of pipe or one more foot of roadway.
Paxton noted the chamber’s encouragement of governmental units’ collaboration in order to spend tax dollars more efficiently, and its advocacy for “e-fairness”, a tax on online businesses that would help level the playing field for Main Street businesses. She said there was no support for any tax increase at the Minnesota Legislature because it was an election year.
Marohn warned against a reliance of government subsidies for economic development.
“We are not going to be able to subsidize our way to prosperity,” he said.
Most panelists urged for a private/public partnership in economic development.
When the panelists discussed downtown Brainerd, Paxton described it as a “true gem” and noted that it had lost very few businesses during the economic downturn. Marohn noted that 8,000 people lived within walking distance of downtown. Ostgarden said 1,000 employees worked within a mile of downtown.
“Brainerd is a great city,” Ostgarden said. “We need to find ourselves as a city.”
Moderating the panel was Taylor Stevenson, vice president of the Rosenmeier Center Board of Directors and a DFL candidate for Senate District 10. Steve Wenzel, executive director of the Rosenmeier Center, introduced the panel. Opening remarks were delivered by Larry Lundblad, CLC president, and Eric Klang, Pequot Lakes police chief, of the Rosenmeier board.