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REGION FIVE DEVELOPMENT COMMISSION: Identifying the path to the future

BAXTER — Sustainability. Land use. Jobs. Housing. Transportation. 

Nearly 200 people gathered Wednesday in Baxter to consider what this region could be in 20 years on all those fronts and how to get there from here. It was the kick-off session for a Region Five Development Commission regional plan. 

The session at The Lodge at Brainerd Lakes in Baxter brought together high school students and retirees, environmentalists and developers, small business owners, restauranteurs, nonprofits and representatives from area county and city governments. 

Region Five was recently awarded an $825,050 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a Sustainable Communities Regional Planning program with four main work areas — housing, transportation, land use and economic development.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who spent time with Region Five in Brainerd last month, sent a video message to the gathering. 

“This is about quality of life in every sense,” Klobuchar said, noting this regional planning effort is a collaboration that is looking at the big picture with public and private partnerships.

The Region Five group outlined a plan utilizing a consortium of 200 members with workgroups of about 35 each looking at four main topic areas.

Partners in the endeavor include resources and research from the University of Minnesota. The project is bringing together HUD, the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation. 

The effort’s focus includes expanding local food, active living, renewable energy and having economic vitality along with preservation of natural resources. 

So why would this plan be different from a vast assortment of other plans that collect dust on municipal shelves? Region Five executive director Cheryal Lee Hills said it’s a matter of having the right team at the right time. And she said the project comes with outcomes. 

Hills said this effort is different as it involves multiple disciplines and crosses jurisdictions. 

The goal is to look 20 years into the future and develop performance targets. One of the questions the group wants to look at is how to plan for affordable housing options near work centers and affordable transportation options. 

Following Wednesday’s kick-off meeting, the four workgroups will meet and develop recommendations. The University of Minnesota is doing scenario planning for the project by taking gathered information on what exists here, what the imagined future could be and paths to it. The effort looks at plausible scenarios taking into consideration uncertainties such as gas prices and population growth. The group expects to implement the regional plan with specific steps to reach the desired future. 

Along the way, they plan to include diverse opinions. 

Phil Hunsecker, a workgroup team leader, stressed the conversations will and should include passionate discourse but the talk needs to incorporate heavy doses of civility. 

Hunsecker, whose group will be looking at sustainable land use, said they’ll look at what is already here and working, what isn’t working and what works elsewhere that could be incorporated here. 

Meetings, modeling and work group sessions will extend into 2012 with a final draft plan expected on Aug. 14, 2012.