BAXTER -- Improved infrastructure and retaining President Bush's tax cuts are two elements that will help the U.S. economy regain some of its vitality Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., told Brainerd area government and business representatives Tuesday.
The Brainerd Lakes Area Chambers of Commerce-sponsored session was conducted at Nor-son Inc.'s offices in the Baxter Industrial Park.
"Our role is infrastructure, roads and bridges," he said of the federal government. He has introduced a Rural Renaissance bill that will provide federal funding to rural communities that are trying to bolster their infrastructure. He wants to see increased spending in the highway bill, stressing its importance in reviving the economy.
"And I say that as a conservative, a fiscal conservative," the first-term senator said.
Coleman also said that by keeping Bush's tax cuts Americans would have more money to spend, thereby boosting the economy.
Coleman said the scaled-down energy bill includes provisions that would encourage renewable energy, ethanol production and a coal gasification plant in northern Minnesota. In a short session with reporters after the meeting he said that election year politics might mean that the energy bill and the highway bill might be the only concrete accomplishments of this session.
"Beyond that, I can't tell you we'll do much more," he said.
At the chamber's listening session, the theme of the day was collaboration, collaboration between businesses and between business and government.
Coleman said the Baxter and Brainerd areas have done an extraordinary job of building partnerships to encourage growth and economic opportunity. He said his in-laws have a summer place near Hackensack and he's noticed how much the area has grown over the years.
Gary Phillips, assistant superintendent for the Brainerd School District, detailed the Northern Lakes Network Consortium, a collaboration for improved technology in the area. The public-private sector partnership includes Brainerd School District Early Childhood-12, higher education, health care interests, and city, county and state government. The program grew out of a chamber Healthy Technology Community Initiative. Among the consortium's accomplishments:
* St. Joseph's Medical Center and the Brainerd School District were awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to extend infrastructure to include schools, colleges and health care facilities.
* The consortium is working on a proposal with Coleman's office to fund an online curriculum to share with area schools.
Many other area officials shared stories of collaboration and how they have adjusted to changing technology.
Marc Halverson, owner of Brainerd Floral, described a chamber program that helped him use technology to improve order inputs and marketing.
Joe Birmingham, president of Central Lakes College, said that three years ago the school had no courses online and today it has 40. While many improvements have been made in smaller communities, there is still work to be done, he said.
"Rural America isn't there yet," he said.
Sheila Haverkamp of Brainerd Lakes Area Development Corp. said unemployment in the area was about 5 percent. The area is experiencing tremendous growth, she said, noting that gains in construction have offset, to some extent, the loss of manufacturing jobs such as those that were eliminated when the Potlatch plant closed its doors.
Brainerd City Administrator Dan Vogt said his city shares its wastewater treatment plant and its fire department with Baxter. He said Brainerd and Crow Wing County have been longtime partners in a jointly owned airport. There also is a connection between the cities' water systems. Discussions are occurring about the possibility of a fire department station in Baxter.
Doug Grout, executive director for the Brainerd Housing and Redevelopment Authority, said Brainerd and Baxter make up one housing market. He also addressed the issue of growth. He said the county's population grew by roughly 25 percent from about 44,000 in 1990 to about 55,000 in 2000.
Lisa Paxton, chief executive officer of the Brainerd Lakes Area Chambers of Commerce, discussed the efforts to attract a second air carrier to the region and said improved air service is necessary if the current growth is going to continue.
Brainerd Mayor James Wallin and Baxter Mayor Gary Muehlhausen discussed their efforts at cooperation.
"We actually are one community with two governing bodies," Wallin said.
Coleman, who was mayor of St. Paul, interjected that Minneapolis and St. Paul could learn from the example of Brainerd and Baxter.
Crow Wing County Board Chair Terry Sluss expressed concern about the federal mandates involved with No Child Left Behind legislation. Coleman defended the program, saying that flexibility is needed in defining who is a qualified teacher. He also said attempts have been made to increase special education funding but it can't all be done at once due to budget constraints.
After the meeting Coleman said he sensed a high level of optimism about the economic future in this area even though none of the goals can be achieved with a wave of a magic wand.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.