As fall enters the scene and school begins again, the Brainerd Lakes Area waits for completion of our last great Old Economy project, College Drive. While the new four-lane thoroughfare will open soon, Brainerd residents will need to wait a lot longer for the new growth that was supposed to accompany the project. That is, if there is any new growth at all.
The $9 million College Drive improvement is a classic Old Economy project. It is based on the outdated assumption that the key to local prosperity is increasing the flow of traffic. If ever there was a city where the folly of this approach is fully on display, it is Brainerd. For sixty years, the downtown has been gutted and the surrounding neighborhoods degraded to make way for wider traffic lanes and more parking. The approach has stagnated the population along with the tax base, encouraging those with the means to do so to locate outside of town.
Brainerd’s population grew by 68% in the first half of the 20th century, from 7,500 residents in 1900 to 12,600 in 1950. Since then, as Brainerd policy shifted to dismantling the city in anticipation of the prosperity that was supposed to come with automobile mobility, the population has grown by only 4%. The stagnation was isolated to Brainerd; surrounding communities grew robustly during this time and Crow Wing County itself has grown by over 80% since World War II. The State Demographer’s office does not expect Brainerd’s population to change appreciably over the next twenty five years.
This should prompt an uncomfortable question: If the population is not growing, why is traffic projected to double on College Drive?
Project advocates will argue that it is from all of the anticipated growth and the influx of people that this investment will provide. That is a testable theory and it prompts me to issue this challenge to those that would advocate for more projects of this sort.
Show us the growth.
Before the city of Brainerd spends another dime on adding traffic capacity, someone identify just one new business that was constructed in Brainerd due to the public’s $9 million investment in College Drive. Before we go any further down this path, someone identify where the investment of $662 per Brainerd resident has increased the city’s tax base even a dollar.
Of course, to justify this project financially, many new businesses will need to be constructed and the tax base will need to increase significantly. Assume for a moment that, in twenty five years, the city has to pay just $3 million to maintain this enhanced corridor, a third of the current construction cost. At the current rate of taxation, the city would need over $65 million in new tax base to cover that additional maintenance expense. Where is that growth going to come from?
When I’ve asked this question of city officials, they point to property outside of the current city limits where they anticipate development pressure. What is not being recognized is that more horizontal expansion comes with its own costs beyond the $9 million already spent on College Drive. Anything done on the periphery of the city will have roads, sewer, water and all the other costs associated with it. If the trends of recent decades are an indicator, the liabilities the city assumes in further horizontal expansion will far exceed the value of any new tax base.
So let’s be clear; to make the current College Drive project a financially viable undertaking, the city needs $65 million in new tax base on its existing infrastructure.
That’s not going to happen without a radically different vision for the future of Brainerd. Instead of an obsession with moving cars and the false dream of growth through horizontal expansion, Brainerd needs to instead focus on improving the real financial value of its existing neighborhoods. That means strategies for improving the quality of life for residents and locally owned businesses beyond simply giving them a shortcut to get to Baxter’s big box strip. We need to give people a reason to want to move to Brainerd, not simply drive through it.
Before Brainerd spends millions on another Old Economy project, public officials need to show us the success from the $9 million spent on College Drive. Until then, let’s devote our limited resources to projects that actually have a positive return on investment.
Charles Marohn is a Professional Engineer licensed in the State of Minnesota and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is president of Strong Towns, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for changes in development patterns and a complete understanding of the full costs of methods of growth.
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