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River to Rail explores revitalization ideas

Railroad tracks, as seen from South Eighth Street, lead to the NP Center Wednesday, June 13, in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

A raft of development ideas, ranging from a farmers market to bringing Paul Bunyan to downtown Brainerd, were aired Monday, June 11, at a River to Rail Steering Committee meeting.

The initiative is a collaboration and joint effort of the city of Brainerd, Brainerd Housing and Residential Authority, Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp., the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce and many individual volunteers.

Having earlier identified six areas in which work could be done on the revitalization project, the group listened to progress reports from representatives of each group. Brainerd Mayor Ed Menk said the River to Rail initiative, which calls for linking the city's riverfront to downtown Brainerd and the Northern Pacific Center, could be a project that takes five to 10 years. Still, he said there have been considerable signs of progress and revitalization recently.

"I've seen more progress in the last two years than in the last 20," Menk said.

In particular, he pointed out the chamber's participation in the Deluxe Printing Small Business Revolution recently.

Bruce Buxton, who has spearheaded River to Rail progress, also noted the excitement the early proposals have garnered.

"Everyone wants it to happen yesterday," Buxton said.

The meeting was conducted at the office of the chamber and the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp.

Mike Bjerkness, workforce director for BLAEDC, said two aspects people want to know about as he recruits executives to work in the Brainerd lakes area are the quality of the schools and the area's "cool factor," a component which could be aided by amenities and business opportunities River to Rail hopes to foster.

"Without the cool factor people are not interested in coming here," Bjerkness said. "Without great schools and cool items we will have a tough time recruiting."

The six segments of the project include a comprehensive plan and infrastructure; community space, trails and parks; arts and culture; marketing initiatives, special projects and events; existing buildings, business and housing and new development/redevelopment.

Buxton said a developer expressed interest in the Parker Building at Seventh and Laurel streets, which houses E.L. Menk Jewelers. Menk said after the meeting people have expressed interest in the building, but no immediate plans have been made for any changes.

BNSF Railway officials told Buxton they were not interested in one identified option of a trail parallel to the railroad tracks out of concern it would draw people closer to the tracks and create a safety hazard, but they encouraged River to Rail proponents to make a proposal on other improvements, including rental of space, lease of property, and purchase of right of way.

Brainerd City Administrator Cassandra Torstenson said the railroad company agreed to plans for an east-west walkway between Washington Street and the railroad property, starting at 13th Street and heading east. Currently no funding is available for that walkway. The city has also requested a walkway (and perhaps eventually) a roadway along the path of Laurel Street east toward the Northern Pacific Center and a walkway that would cross the railroad tracks along 13th Street.

Rod Osterloh of Close-Converse Commercial reported tentative plans call for a plaza located near the North Star Apartments on the Mississippi River. He said members of his committee are looking for Brainerd area bicyclists who were interested in advocating for furthering the connection of Brainerd with the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail.

Menk noted Life Cycle, a Baxter bicycle store, is planning to move to a South Sixth Street location in October.

Matt Kilian, president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber, said the chamber will kick off its Destination Downtown program on July 28 at the Koop Building, which formerly housed the Iron Rail.

He suggested Brainerd might want to situate a Paul Bunyan statue at an appropriate location to give visitors a photographic destination. He also said work needed to be done to improve the organization and communication among downtown businesses.

"Business owners have to get together," Buxton agreed.

Menk suggested the possibility of eye-catching art on the old Brainerd water tower at Sixth and Washington streets.

Jennifer Bergman, executive director of the Brainerd Housing and Redevelopment Authority, reported on her committee, which is dealing with existing buildings, business and housing. She said suggestions included dog-friendly areas, designated spaces for smokers, safety issues and signs promoting downtown Brainerd.

Torstenson said upcoming events in the downtown area include belly dancing, a possible performance by the Lakes Area Music Festival, occasional acoustic or "lightly amplified" music and a farmers market. She suggested the first step was to market individual downtown events rather than the downtown area.

Aimee Jobe of the Northern Pacific Center said her biggest struggle has been the cost of restoration at the former railroad shops. She said they have added parking, replaced two roofs and paved an area called Blacksmith Circle.

The next River to Rail Steering Committee meeting is Sept. 5.

Mike O'Rourke
Mike O'Rourke began his career at the Brainerd Dispatch in 1978 as a general assignment reporter. He was named city editor in 1981 and associate editor in 1999. He covers politics and writes features and editorials.
(218) 855-5860
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