Brainerd-Baxter and Crow Wing County are facing a very important decision concerning their future and business climate. We have the choice of either continuing the steady growth of diversified retail and business outlets that we have been experiencing, or allowing supercenters, the largest retail stores in existence to come to our community and monopolize our retail options.
The track record of superstores, which are approximately two to three times the size of big box retailers such as Fleet Farm, Wal-Mart and Target, is one of destroying locally-owned businesses, and replacing higher-paying jobs with benefits in the grocery industry with jobs that pay close to minimum wage and offer minimal or no benefits. This track record is well-established in the hundreds of communities in this country where superstores have opened. As a result, dozens of cities and towns have said "no" to superstores and "yes" to a diversified retail base with large numbers of locally-owned businesses and specialty stores by limiting the size of new retail developments to roughly the equivalent of existing Target and Wal-Mart stores.
The Coalition for Responsible Development is in the process of proposing such ordinances to Brainerd, Baxter and Crow Wing County. The coalition hopes that we can maintain the good business climate that we have in the lakes area, as well as preserving and improving the existing downtown and other small business retail developments such as the Westgate Mall.
I was present at the June 3, 2002 Brainerd City Council meeting. Throughout the meeting Alderperson Olson spoke up constantly, more than any of the other council members, often repeating and rephrasing what had already been said by the other members. Alderperson Olson seems to have a long-running disagreement with Alderperson Nesheim, and other alderpersons who do not agree with him on every issue. I was especially intrigued by Alderperson Olson's criticism of how Brainerd has handled economic development in the past. As a lifelong Brainerd resident, I recall that Alderperson Olson used to be the mayor of our city, which seems to make him as responsible as anyone for what has or has not been done in the past.
Alderperson Olson wanted to push through a resolution encouraging staff to pursue superstores without presenting any evidence whatsoever that they would not harm our community, much less be good for it. Mr. Olson did not tell anybody in advance about the content or the motion which he sought to make. Mr. Olson wanted to have the council direct city staff to pursue superstore development without allowing the planning commission or any other city agencies to hear the facts about the track record of what superstores have done to other communities, by doing so, Mr. Olson wanted to take it upon himself to determine the future development plans for the entire community. Mr. Olson mentioned the word "facts" four times in his lengthy guest column without actually presenting a single one of them. The citizens have a right to know the facts and evidence, including what we will lose if a superstore comes to our community. Many small business owners, including Mr. Olson, who is now retired, and their employees, have made our community what it is today. I would especially ask those who are retired, and have already made their living here consider the needs of the younger generation to earn a living wage and raise our families, if we choose. Minimum wage superstore jobs will not allow me to remain in Brainerd, raise a family, buy a home or even provide for a basic standard of living.
We all want a good business climate, with the jobs that will pay our citizens and young people a living wage. I would hope that we can pull together and rise above the counterproductive petty disagreements and personality conflicts. Brainerd-Baxter and the other communities in our county need to work together to preserve the existing small businesses and good jobs and to encourage new development that will complement and expand on what we already have. Pitting Brainerd against Baxter or pitting certain council members against each other is counterproductive and immature. Information about the problems caused by superstores is available at the following web sites: www.pbs.org/storewars, www.ilsr.org (The Institute for Local Self-Reliance), www.walmartwatch.com. www.nlcnet.org, www.1000 fom.org (Friends of Minnesota).
Those interested in learning more about this issue are welcome to attend the Coalition for Responsible Development picnic/fund-raiser on June 14 at 5 p.m. at Lum Park or the meeting scheduled for June 15 at 4 p.m. at Northwest Pizza/Boardwalk Bread and Bagel. Feel free to call 825-7030 for more information.
(Engholm is a Brainerd resident and a member of the Coalition for Responsible Development.)
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