How does a city revitalize its heart after a successful bypass?
That's the question behind an effort in Brainerd to restore the downtown area and surrounding business community.
Earlier this year a handful of citizens formed a non profit corporation called Brainerd Restoration to look at the potential of the downtown area and the wider Brainerd business community. In November, the group focused on a project called "Brainerd: Heart of the City," which was driven in part after the opening of the Highway 371 bypass. Included is a discussion about the role of main street in a community that has become more known for strip developments and highway corridors than traditional city centers.
The outcome has been a larger question about the community body and what defines a city. John Erickson, Brainerd Restoration vice president, asked whether a city core is needed for a healthy sense of community and what function such a municipal heart plays.
"Does this area need a heart?" Erickson said. "Does this lakes area need a center?"
The heart project, with assistance from regional arts alliances, will include a yearlong effort to invite photographers, painters, sculptors, poets and essayists to examine the city and comment on it -- the downtown and its arteries like Washington Street and South Sixth Street -- in an artistic form.
After June 2002, locations could be created within the city for exhibition of the artists' efforts. Literary outlets are also part of the project. Monetary prizes are expected for awards in art, poetry and essay.
Jerry Rosnau, who with his wife, Wendy, owns CatTales, a book and gift store on Laurel Street, said he is a strong supporter of the arts project. With government and professional offices downtown, Rosnau said the challenge is to entice new businesses and convince shoppers to look at the area, which is something a cultural center may do.
"People come down here and work and they don't really shop," he said. "A lot of the people I talk to say they don't come down here because there is nothing for them. I think the only alternative to try to get some vitality down here is to go to the arts. ... I get people driving up here from the Cities to my bookstore and I can't get the local people to come in."
Brainerd Restoration has been in conversation with the Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation, The Crossing Arts Alliance, Poets' Organization, Writers' Alliance, Encore Arts Club and Brainerd Art Club, among others, regarding the project.
Erickson, a lifelong Brainerd resident who has his downtown law offices on South Sixth Street, said Brainerd Restoration would like to see more vitality in the downtown area. For Erickson, part of that vitality comes with color, movement and sound. He said that may be found in colorful banners, flowers and from the art projects.
In the process, Brainerd Restoration members think the community will be more healthy, attractive and more vital, Erickson said.
"For the moment the emphasis is on the greater downtown," Erickson said, but he added the group believes in the principles of inclusion and looking to the arteries that lead to the city's heart as well.
"At the moment it is a heart that needs some assistance," Erickson said. He said a project goal is self examination, looking at the city's attractiveness, particularly for the commercial core and how that affects visitors, workers and residents. Through debate, Erickson said he thinks a consensus can be formed about what people want to see.
The organization's literature states it "was organized to assist the community in developing a culturally and economically vital, dynamic and attractive Brainerd business district to visit and work in."
In May, Brainerd Restoration handed out brooms to downtown business owners in a partly symbolic effort aimed at cleaning up the store fronts and area like traditional shopkeepers of old. Another plan is a downtown arts festival for the fall of 2001.
Erickson, who has an avid interest in photography with his work displayed in his law office, also has a seat on The Crossing Arts Alliance. The newly formed alliance's stated mission is as an advocate for increased public awareness and support of culture and the arts in the Brainerd lakes area.
Erickson often uses a quote from Mark Edward, St. Olaf College president, to reflect the group's efforts: "The space in which we live and work can profoundly shape the way we think of each other, care for each other, care for each other's destiny and build a common life together."
Rosnau said: "I think the arts is not the total answer, but I think it's a step in the right direction. ... We need to get people downtown. If we can do that through the arts, I think it is fantastic."
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