Say no to the airport project
Wednesday, April 16, 2014 at 06:00AM
A Better Brainerd

This opinion piece was recently submitted to the Brainerd Daily dispatch for publication in response to a recent article that appeared in that publication.

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Time is running out for the Brainerd City Council to stop – or even substantively influence – the proposed sewer and water expansion to the Brainerd Lakes Airport. They need to act now.

This project has been driven entirely from the top down. It wasn’t the result of a pressing public need – although Brainerd has lots of those – and there has been no substantive public input or feedback along the way. The project is not in the city’s comprehensive plan or capital improvements plan. It is listed nowhere on the city’s website. It has immaculately emerged as a multi-million dollar collateral obligation from a prior top down project: the expansion of the regional airport.

This is a pattern Brainerd’s residents and business owners are only too familiar with. While we can’t afford to paint a crosswalk, we put off critical street maintenance, we let our parks become overgrown with weeds and we make recurring cuts to public safety, we are continuously presented big ticket projects that we simply can’t say no to. How does this happen?

The answer is fairly simple. Some staff member, committee or unelected commission identifies a need or big ticket desire. Working outside of any real scrutiny, the project is developed over time to the point where a funding stream emerges. We then have all the local power brokers – such as the Chamber of Commerce and BLAEDC – step forth to endorse the project. Then, only when “most” of the funding has been secured, the elected City Council, and by extension the public, is asked to weigh in.

Is the City Council going to say no to $6.5 million dollars in state funding? They are not, especially when the airport manager says “we’re not going to make that deadline,” a Fire Marshal mandate the airport has known about for years, without the one plan currently on the table.

Is the City Council going to turn their backs on millions of dollars of state funding secured by our legislators? Unless they want to lose their credibility for the next bonding bill request, they will take the money (after some superficial grandstanding), provide the required matching funds and issue a press release thanking Representatives Ward and Radinovich as well as Senator Ruud for their service to the area.

Is the City Council going to resist a project that BLAEDC has called “critical…to the economic growth of our community”? Will the Council reject the calls of the Chamber to create a “two-mile stretch that now becomes prime real estate for commercial development”? For a city desperately needing economic growth, are we going to say no to the potential – realistic or not – of 20 new jobs by 2017. Even at the price of $380,000 per potential job, as the airport manager said, they are “jobs our community needs.”

So the City Council will be handed this neatly wrapped project with every short term incentive to say yes. When the public is finally asked to weigh in, it will be at a tightly scripted and superficial public hearing. We’ve all been here before.

This is a bad project and the City Council should stop it before the point of no return. It runs counter to the primary focus of their strategic plan: neighborhood investments and stable financial planning. More growth on the outskirts of town may be good for “chamber members” in the short term but it has not benefitted Brainerd’s downtown or its neighborhood businesses. These gambles on growth create enormous long term obligations, unproductive investments that divert money from our core neighborhoods. After decades of no population growth following just this approach, when are we going to learn our lesson?

So what is an alternative? This City Council should act on its stated priorities and direct its staff to focus its efforts on neighborhood investments. We shouldn’t be doing one top down project but instead dozens of small projects along with a comprehensive realigning of codes and policies to be friendlier to small, incremental investments from the private sector.

If we did this, we would not be gambling with our future in the hopes of attracting elusive growth. Instead we would be investing in making Brainerd a better place to live right now. This will not only improve the lives of our friends and neighbors today, it is also the financially savvy thing to do. Small, incremental neighborhood projects are low risk, high return investments. They are how modern cities are building real wealth and prosperity in an age of austerity.

I’m still waiting for the jobs from College Drive and the tens of millions of dollars of new private sector investment needed to keep that “investment” from being a future financial millstone around this community’s neck. Let’s prevent another mistake by stopping the airport utility project before it is too late.

 

Charles Marohn, PE AICP

Licensed Engineer, American Institute of Certified Planners

President of Strong Towns, a national non-profit based out of Brainerd

Brainerd High School, Class of 1991

Article originally appeared on A Better Brainerd (http://www.abetterbrainerd.org/).
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