Wednesday
Dec042013

People, people everywhere

A grainy reminder of what downtown Brainerd used to be and could be again.

The amount of people that used to frequent the downtown day in and day out is simply amazing. We should reject any vision for the future that can't imagine a return to that level of activity in the heart of our city.

Monday
Dec022013

Parking on Black Friday

You can never have enough parking, right?

We're often told that Brainerd needs to compete with Baxter and, to do that, we need more parking. Unless potential customers can get into town quickly and then easily find a place to park, they're just going to end up shopping at the big box strip in Baxter. Or so the theory goes.

So what do we do? We put minimum parking requirements into our regulations so that any new construction -- and even many remodeling projects -- require a minimum amount of parking.

For today's conversation, let's not talk about the harmful impact this has on small business startups who have to clear this expensive hurdle. Let's also overlook the unnecessary competitive advantage this gives to the big box strip in Baxter where parking can be created cheaply and easily (although wait until they have to bear the cost to maintain it). We'll also skip the way this negatively impacts the quality of life in Brainerd's neighborhoods as well as the financial health of the city.

Today, let's just take a look at how necessary these regulations really are.

Last Friday was Black Friday, supposedly the busiest shopping day of the year. If these huge parking lots aren't used on that day, when will they be?

As part of a national project organized by Strong Towns, we went out and took photos of Brainerd's major parking lots on Black Friday. The photos were all taken between 11AM and 1:30 PM. As can be seen, even on this, the busiest day, there is a ton of free space.

Here's the East Brainerd Mall.

Here's the Westgate Mall.

Here's the strip mall across from the YMCA.

In reality, Baxter's Wal-Mart, Target, Gander Mountain, Westport Shopping Center and Fleet Farm were largely the same. This tracks with images and data from all over the country and it leads to one clear conclusion: We don't know what we're doing with our minimum parking requirements.

This observation -- that we don't know what we are doing -- is widely understood among urban planners and designers. The popular podcast Freakonomics looked extensively at this issue and interview Don Shoup, a parking expert out of California, who claims all this parking is not only unnecessary, it is bankrupting our cities. We agree with that assessment, especially as it applies to Brainerd.

Fortunately, this is a problem that can be easily solved. Let's just get rid of minimum parking standards. Businesses can figure out how much parking they need and what the cost/benefit is for providing more. If parking becomes too limited in a certain area, we can consider what many cities do: metering the public parking during peak periods to increase turnover and free up space. 

We can also take some baby steps today to make the city more walkable and bikeable, providing people with options besides driving and parking right in front of the store they plan to visit. Our recent Neighborhoods First report outlines how we can do this in Northeast Brainerd, an approach that could be easily and affordably adopted in other parts of the city.

Brainerd needs to repeal its parking standards. They have no scientific or data-driven basis and are not defensible in any practical way. Repealing these standards will cost no money but will go a long ways towards helping local businesses open quickly and devote their limited resources to growing their business instead of satisfying the red tape requirement to build unneeded parking.

Tuesday
Nov192013

No traffic signals?

This isn't going to happen anytime soon here in Brainerd, but it gives some perspective as to what is possible. Make sure and catch the quote at the 2:18 mark.

There used to be traffic lights here which meant you would usually sit in traffic for a while. Now you drive more slowly but can keep moving.

Tuesday
Nov052013

Debt makes us fragile

The Brainerd Dispatch reported on a recent city council meeting where the 2014 budget was discussed. As currently proposed, the budget has a nearly $700,000 deficit, an amount that needs to be eliminated over the next six weeks. That deficit appears to persist after a 12.7% levy, although that is not totally clear from the article (and the 2014 budget figures are nowhere discernable on the city's website).

Two numbers in the article jumped out at me.

Proposed 2014 levy: $4,453,486

2014 debt service: $1,900,000

The levy is the amount of money that the city is raising from its own tax base. This is the portion of the property tax collected by the city. Now this isn't all the revenue the city collects in a year, but it is a large part of what is collected locally, what we can depend on as reliable annual funding.

Without access to the 2014 numbers, I looked back at the 2013 budget, which is available on the city's website. The levy in 2013 was $3.9 million and the total budget was $13.1 million. The bulk of the $9.2 million difference comes from transfer payments, money from the state and federal government.

2013 levy: $3,953,486

2013 budget: $13,095,040

State/Federal money: $5,111,277

In Brainerd, we don't like to talk about the state and federal money that makes up 4 out of every 10 dollars we spend. For many, it goes against a fiscal conservative ethic to acknowledge that we are dependent on big government transfers. Others like to believe that this represents a sacred obligation state and federal governments have to help us provide services. Neither of these viewpoints is very pragmatic. Or helpful.

The state and federal governments are anything but stable sources of income. Even if we want to believe that they are our partners, we have to acknowledge that they fickle ones. And they are over committed.

What does that mean for us?

Imagine a future where recession (for what it's worth, we're actually due for one) forces cutbacks in state and federal spending. They make the difficult decision to not cut benefits for seniors, health care, education, prisons or transportation but instead start the budget balancing process with transfers to local government. In a worse case scenario, our budget is cut by around $5 million.

That is a draconian cut, one we would find nearly impossible to deal with. But consider how the debt load will make it all that much harder. Debt service currently sits at 14% of the budget, historically high but today around the average for cities nationwide. Without the support of state/federal sources, that amount jumps to 24%, a situation where 1 out of every 4 dollars will go just to pay local debt. That's critical territory, especially with the other massive cuts that would be forced simultaneously.

When our outside sources of revenue decline, our debt service amounts hold steady. That limits our flexibility and makes us very fragile to reductions in sources of revenue we have no control over. How do we deal with that?

Here are some basic guidelines for taking on debt:

  1. We should be extremely adverse to taking on additional debt. The due diligence necessary is far greater than what we -- or most other cities -- currently undertake.
  2. Where we take on new debt, the repayment window should be short, no more than seven years so we have some flexibility to adjust to any volatility in our revenue stream.
  3. Debt should never be used for basic maintenance, routine expenses and predictable capital expenditures, all of which should be supported by the stable tax base of the city. If the stable tax base of the city is insufficient to pay for everything we feel we need to do, we need ask (and answer) some other questions and not paper over the problem with debt.
  4. Debt should be used for capital investments, but only where there is a guaranteed and measurable return.

Debt is seductive because it allows local officials to meet constituent demands today -- high levels of service with low levels of taxation -- by converting current cash flow to lump sum payments. Our special circumstance here in Brainerd, mainly our over-reliance on government transfer payments, needs to make us hyper vigilant to the temptation of debt. Projects like Brainerd Oaks, College Drive and the upcoming utility expansion to the airport are risky places to take on risky debt.

Fortunately, there is another approach to consider, one that makes strategic investments in our neighborhoods and does not require new debt or great risk. Check out our Neighborhoods First report to see how Brainerd can make low risk, high reward investments throughout the city's neighborhoods.

Monday
Oct212013

Winning the war, losing our minds

Back in 2011, Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Thiede let it be known that roundabouts felt a little too Socialist for him (or perhaps Fascist or Communist....weren't the French technically our allies?).

“Being a good American that I am and thinking we fought a war with Europe over some things, this is one of those things that seems to me to be European,” Thiede said.

While it does seem like spending a lot of money for poorer results has become very American over the past generation, there is no reason why we need to continue to spend money on expensive signals just so we can sit in traffic longer.

While we can discount the intelligence of millions of Europeans, it is surely more difficult for American culture to scoff at the motley duo over at Myth Busters who recently decided to find out if the American four way stop or the socialist/fascist/communist roundabout was the superior way to handle intersections.

To get the answer, you'll have to watch for yourself. No spoiler.