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Monday
Feb032014

The pursuit of growth

Now we find our bi-partisan delegation of state legislators writing the governor to urge him to support running sewer and water out to the Brainerd Regional Airport. A project that came out of nowhere has somehow become our highest regional priority. How did this occur and why are we suddenly willing to spend all our local clout on it?

Since we could not find any reference to this project – not even a passing mention -- in any master plan or other long range document the city has made available on their website, we asked the city staff where the project came from. The answer: a document called the Northeast Brainerd Sanitary Sewer and Water Master Plan.

The first thing to note about this document, and the thing we are going to focus on today, is the date it was prepared: February 2006. This is the peak of the housing bubble and the rush of local governments to cash in on new growth. Our collective delusion that this bubble represented real, sustainable growth would be revealed a short two years later. That delusion is embodied in this pre-crash report.

“Growth and expansion of the residential, commercial and public services industries of Northeast Brainerd, Brainerd-Crow Wing County Regional Airport and Crow Wing County as a whole have prompted the initiation of this study and master plan.” (page 1)

Of course, in retrospect we can ask: what growth? While there has been some marginal expansion and some reuse of buildings that had been abandoned (the former Pamida, the former JC Penny’s, the former Montgomery Wards, the former Sears), it would be a far stretch to say that NE Brainerd, particularly between the East Brainerd Mall and the airport, has seen robust growth. This is a case of assuming that a rising tide will raise all boats, but that never actually happened.

But this plan follows an earlier model that, in 2006, Brainerd officials thought was working.

“In 2001, the city of Brainerd completed a similar master plan for sanitary sewer and water utility expansion north of the city proper, including CSAH 20 (Riverside Drive) and the Mississippi river uplands on the northern edges of the city.” (page 1)

New "growth" in annexed land to north of the city. Lots of optimism but little results. Are we really going to try this again?The financial disaster that the Riverside Drive gambling project would become was not yet fully exposed in 2006, a time when there was still confidence that all that public liability could generate Baxter-style growth opportunities. Today, as a result of the Riverside Drive project, we have miles of pipe in the ground that we have no plan, and no realistic expectation, to make productive use of it.

Does this cause us to pause and reevaluate our assumptions on doing this again, only in an area that has shown even less growth potential? Of course not. We need the growth and we have no other ideas on how to create it except to expand horizontally.

In 2006, we believed:

“Land that is currently zoned commercial and light industrial, the Highway 210 corridor, will be developed and will likely include both service and retail sectors. Infill of existing suburban residential lots will occur, and planned residential developments will be considered for vacant acreage that currently is buffered from highway corridor development.” (page 1)

We can clearly see now that these beliefs were unfounded. We thought we knew what we were doing. We didn’t. You could say it was forces beyond our ability to control or predict, but that only makes the point. The Riverside Drive project then and now this utility expansion project are simply huge gambles, one that the current generation is not paying for (assessments and state/fed transportation dollars paid for Riverside Drive and the state will pay for the airport project) but which the next generation of Brainerd residents will be forced to maintain.

The Northeast Brainerd Sanitary Sewer and Water Master Plan – the basis for the project that has now become our top regional priority – is a plan for growth and expansion written at the height of the housing bubble. It has not been updated for the new economy. The assumptions of future growth have not been rigorously analyzed based on what we now know. This project is simply the result of a system operating on autopilot.

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To summarize where we are at so far in this series about the airport utility project:

  • There are options for solving the problems at the airport that would be vastly cheaper. (Fire Marshal Demands?)
  • The project is being done to create growth opportunities.
  • Growth projections were done at the height of the housing boom and have not been updated since the dramatic change in market conditions.

In the next post, we’ll look at the overly optimistic growth assumptions for this project and show how, even if the growth somehow actually took place as predicted, the project is still a bad investment for Brainerd.

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