The fact that growth is going to be part of the lakes area's future with visible changes in the next few years appears to be a fact few protest. The data and growth curves are there. The increase in population has been documented. The changes in retail development along Highway 371 is plain to see for any motorist along that well-known stretch of roadway.
Friday afternoon more than 80 people gave up rising temperatures and a sunny day to discuss such issues at a Growth Forum at Central Lakes College.
Moderator George Orning, planning consultant, said the center of the larger lakes area community are highways 210 and 371. It is a combined city center that serves a community population of 150,000 residents during the summer.
"And it's a very quickly expanding center," Orning said. "It's the retail commercial hub."
When Highway 371 South opens to four lanes to Little Falls in the next few years, Orning said it will mean a closer connection to Little Falls, moving the city closer in terms of travel time.
The connection to Little Falls is just one of the expected outcomes in the near future.
Orning began Friday's session saying one of the forum's goals was to gain from similar experiences regarding growth in other communities.
Examples came from panelists Steve Reckers, community-based planning coordinator for Minnesota Planning; Bruce Larson, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency regional manager; Karen Christofferson, public policy director for the Builders Association of the Twin Cities; Bruce Nelson, executive director at Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District; and Joe Christensen, area developer.
Subject matter ranged from the changing nature of seasonal residents to the infrastructure costs and needs of growth. Many residents are new to the area.
"About one in five of us are new since 1990," Orning said. And research in housing starts confirm growth is centered around the commercial area. "That growth is centered on the Brainerd, Baxter, Unorganized (Territory) core."
Orning noted most of the starts are now coming off the lake, and houses in Aitkin relate to more dollars spent shopping in the lakes area.
In addition, summer people -- those who populated vacation homes for a few months a year -- are now becoming part-time residents. Those former summer people have turned cabins into year-round homes and technology is allowing them to commute to Twin Cities jobs without leaving lakes area homes. That change is also a challenge, making it hard to measure accurate population numbers.
"In effect we are building a new regional center here," Orning said.
A full exploration of forum topics will be part of The Dispatch's continuing examination of growth issues in coming editions. The Growth Forum was sponsored by The Dispatch. The Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota was a co-sponsor.
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