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Optimism, commercial interest climbing in Baxter

BAXTER — Baxter officials expressed optimism as commercial interest in the city has taken an upward climb recently.

“I’m seeing a light at the end of the tunnel for the first time in a few years,” said Gordon Heitke, Baxter city administrator during a Friday morning business meeting at the Northland Arboretum. “I’m really optimistic about the future.”

The meetings, hosted as state of the city updates and conducted periodically in Brainerd and Baxter, are the initiative of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber’s Regional Business Council.

Looking at the drop in dollars coming into the city, just on commercial construction since the recession took hold, Heitke said the numbers represent a loss of almost six years of growth.

In 2006 and 2007, Baxter had more than $20 million each year from commercial construction. By 2010, that number had dropped to less than $8 million and was less than half that so far in 2011.

The city’s net tax capacity began dropping in 2008 from $13,104,334 to $10,616,026 for 2012.

Single family residential building permits nearly dropped off the map, going from nearly 90 a year in 2006 to just more than five in 2011.

But a welcome trend is a slowly rising gross local option sales tax and motor vehicle excise tax collection amount. In 2007-2008, the city collected $2,014,097 in the local option sales tax. That dropped to $1,853,029 in 2008-2009. But it is on an upward swing, climbing to a projected $1,921,315 for the 2010-2011 collection.

Lodging tax collections are also on an upward swing with year-to-date totals for 2011 representing a 7.6 percent increase above 2010, which was up 5.9 percent from 2009. But those increases are after a 1.7 percent decrease in 2008, which was followed by an 11.2 percent decrease in 2009.

The 7.6 percent increase this year represents a positive outlook, Heitke said, “which means people are coming back to the community and staying here.”

In addition, Heitke said the Essentia Health-Baxter Clinic addition is changing the entire look of the Highway 371 gateway to Baxter. Across the highway the new water tower is now under construction, which will bear the city’s name aloft.

With announced plans for Costco, Prairie Bay’s expansion, the Westgate Mall renovation and store additions, the Movies 10 renovation, North Pointe Centre retail expansion, building for Berrywood Apartment buildings and Sprucewood Townhome units and the announced addition of Discount Tires by Walmart, Heitke said while there have been disappointments (such as the developer deciding not to pursue the Gander Mountain redevelopment), there is much more activity overall.

“I’ve not sensed this kind of potential business in a number of years,” Heitke said. “And if half of these things happen it’s going to be a big summer for us.”