The last 10 years have been boom years for the Brainerd lakes area. Between 1990 and 2000, the population of Crow Wing County grew by 25 percent and per capita income rose by close to 50 percent.
Employment increased across all industry sectors -- which many analysts see as an indicator of a strong, diversified economy. And by 1998, Minnesota's central region, including Crow Wing County, was leading the state in business expansions and start-ups, according to the Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development.
A growing U.S. economy and the area's abundant natural resources have no doubt played a key role in the region's prosperity. But it also has been aided in great part by a substantial network of government and non-profit groups whose job it is to facilitate economic development in the region.
During the past 10 years, cities in the Brainerd lakes area have been on the front lines of economic development, making decisions regarding taxes, zoning, land use and infrastructure (such as water, sewer, gas, electric, and phone service) that have helped lay the ground work for economic development.
Flexibility has been key, says Dan Vogt, Brainerd city administrator. "In Brainerd we have a basic outline of how we anticipate development proceeding, but being able to respond to changing economic conditions is important," Vogt said. "An area of town which may not have been seen as a potential growth area, may suddenly be viewed differently as traffic patterns and surrounding businesses change."
Trying to stay one step ahead of growth is critical too, says Larry Kruse, Baxter city administrator. Kruse said Baxter's last comprehensive plan was created in 1996 and is currently being revised. "While a typical city might update their city-wide plan every ten years, we anticipate updating ours every five years given the rate of growth we've been experiencing," Kruse said.
Another way cities in the Brainerd lakes region have worked to keep their economic development activities on target is through special commissions or economic authorities. These groups, usually composed of community representatives, work with a city's council members to help determine whether or not proposed developments are in keeping with a city's overall plan.
Like area city leaders, Crow Wing County leaders have also felt the effect of accelerated growth.
"The county's last comprehensive plan was completed in 1994 and will soon be getting a much-needed revision," says Ed Larsen, chairman of the Crow Wing County Board. Larsen, who believes cooperation is key to the area's economic success, says he plans to involve all the county's municipalities and townships in the planning process in order to incorporate their visions and plans as much as possible.
"It will be a big job," says Larsen, "but the more we involve the people effected, the more positive the area's prospects are likely to be in terms of creating as well as managing growth."
Credit is also given to local government and business leaders who, back in the mid-'80s, supported the idea of providing county-wide economic development support through the creation of two independent, non-profit economic development organizations: The Brainerd Lakes Area Development Corp., which serves the lakes area of Crow Wing County, and Cuyuna Range Economic Development Inc., which serves the cities of Crosby, Ironton, Deerwood, Emily and surrounding municipalities and townships.
Staffed by specialists in economic development, both organizations work with and are supported by area governments along with local businesses and have played a key role in expanding the county's economic base by helping area businesses expand, and by attracting new businesses to the region.
"BLADC's role in the area's economy has always been that of a catalyst to help businesses carry out their plans," says Jim Kraft, president of the Nisswa branch of Northern National Bank and incoming BLADC president. "Simply put, BLADC makes what could be a complicated task, easier. They help businesses overcome barriers to success."
BLADC itself is considered a success, with increasing demand for its services prompting the addition of another economic development specialist to its staff and a broadening of its services.
"BLADC's work has historically focused primarily on job creation, both in industrial and commercial areas," says Kraft. "But its role in area development has also been recently expanded to include assistance in creating infrastructure and housing, both critical to economic growth and expansion."
Assistance and support for the region's economic development efforts has come from other area organizations as well, including the area chambers of commerce, which helps promote the region and provides resources for area businesses. The Small Business Development Center, located within the Business and Industry Center of Central Lakes College, offers technical assistance to new and growing businesses. The Region 5 Development Commission provides funding packages for economic development projects.
Another key supporter has been the Initiative Foundation, a regional non-profit organization that has served central Minnesota since 1986. Through the years, the foundation invested $4.2 million into the lakes area through community development grants, business investments and community planning. Kathy Gaalswyk, Initiative Foundation president, worked in economic development in Central Minnesota since the early eighties and says she's seen first-hand the economic ups and downs that have hit rural Minnesota.
"I've seen what seemed to work and what didn't. I think community leaders in the Brainerd lakes area have certainly been moving in the right direction," she said. "In fact, I can't think of an area that is better positioned to create the kind of healthy, sustainable development that communities will need to prosper in the future."
Like Gaalswyk, incoming BLADC President Jim Kraft sees a bright future ahead for the region as well. Kraft, who has worked in the financial services industry in the Brainerd lakes area for nearly 15 years, says he has seen a marked change in the area's economic base in recent years.
"Because we now have the infrastructure, like telecommunications, in place, we've been able to attract companies we couldn't have supported just a few years ago," Kraft said.
Kraft points out that one of the keys to weathering economic downturns is to have a diversified economy.
"People see new retailers like Menards and Best Buy moving in and they think that's what we mean by economic growth. What most people don't realize is that there are numerous companies, representing all kinds of industries and businesses, that have started or expanded in our area," Kraft said.
As examples, Kraft points to such companies as Cross-Tech Manufacturing in Cross Lake, which manufactures and assembles attachments for brush cutting equipment; Liberty Tool in Pequot Lakes, which creates molds for a variety of plastic products, from playground equipment to kayaks; Kendall Candles, which manufactures candles, and Northern Tool's Pequot Lakes-based customer service call center.
And in Baxter, says Kraft, there's Lindar Corp., which produces specialized packaging services to the industrial and food packing markets, and Team Industries, which manufactures drive train assemblies and components. In Brainerd, examples include Lexington Manufacturing, which provides contract manufacturing services and Construction Analysis and Management, a construction management services firm. These are just a few examples, says Kraft, of the variety of companies now operating in the region.
And there's more on the horizon.
In Baxter, Kruse, for one, sees little to indicate a slowdown in growth. "We had $28 million in new construction this year," says Kruse. "And our guess is that it will be similar, if not more, next year. We've welcomed several new businesses to the city and we've added 129 new homes, plus the Arbor Glenn and Clearwater Estates housing developments. Best Buy is currently under construction and there are plans for even more development over the next year."
Other communities north of Brainerd-Baxter are fairing similarly well. The Pequot Lakes Business Park added more tenants in the past year than it has at any other time, prompting area leaders to predict continued growth into the future. Breezy Point led the area in population growth and will likely continue to attract people, particularly those at or nearing retirement. Crosslake, whose population increased more than 67 percent from 1990 to 2000 is also planning for continuing development.
In fact, what most area government and business leaders are quick to discuss when you ask about the area's economic outlook is not whether things will slow down, but how to manage the growth that keeps occurring.
"It's not like development at all costs," Larsen said. "No one is interested in sacrificing the area's natural resources just for the sake of growth. Most people understand the importance of finding a balance between environmental and economic interests, particularly in this area where one of our greatest assets is our environmental beauty."
Like other cities around the country, the Brainerd lakes area communities are learning from their mistakes.
"The nation's consciousness in terms of how to create development has shifted," Larsen said. "And we're following suit."
Initiatives like the new Highway 371 corridor management plan, which regulates the appearance and environmental impact of new construction along the highway has gone a long way in bolstering the confidence of critics who once questioned area leaders' environmental sensitivities and commitment to creating sustainable development.
In Baxter, a new city ordinance has resulted in more than a million dollars being spent in the city's business and industrial neighborhoods on landscaping, according to Kruse. This spring, Baxter adopted architectural standards in its Phase III Industrial Park expansion, which, Kruse said has not, to his knowledge, been done in the area before. The park's expansion space opened in September and is nearly full as of November. Baxter, Kruse said, will continue to promote green space, enforce on-site construction regulations designed to protect the environment and work to promote a more "up-north appearance."
The Brainerd City Council recently authorized funds for the consulting firm of Damon Farber and Associates (best known for their street-scape design of Duluth's Canal Park) to prepare a master plan for the Brainerd downtown area, including landscape designs that will make the area more accessible and inviting.
"We're talking about livability," Vogt said. "I think everyone agrees that you can have all the development in the world, but if it doesn't add to the quality of people's lives, or make it more pleasant to work, live, and shop here, then it hasn't really done its job."
(The author is a free-lance writer who was commissioned by BLADC to write this article for The Dispatch.)
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