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Our Opinion: Future looks bright for downtown Brainerd

An illustration with the downtown Brainerd River to Rail vision for what the future could include shows a park, water feature and multi-story apartments by the water tower, along with a vintage train and trail. Illustration courtesy of Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development

Perception—unfortunately and unfairly—often trumps reality. That's why it's exciting to see people finally looking at downtown Brainerd in a different way.

Already there are new restaurants and businesses opening in the heart of Brainerd, and at least one more will be opening there as the winner of the Destination Downtown business challenge.

On the periphery of downtown, people are starting to pay attention to the river and the potential for a riverwalk; the Northern Pacific Center is redeveloping; and our schools are looking at upgrades to buildings.

The identity of downtown Brainerd is changing in a good way.

So when Bruce Buxton, formerly of Widseth Smith Nolting and now volunteering with Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation, recently met with the Brainerd Dispatch Editorial Board to discuss ideas he and BLAEDC put together for re-imagining downtown—the River to Rail initiative—it didn't strike us as just another go around at a well-intentioned plan that won't see the light of day. The ideas came together after Buxton spoke to about 100 community members and after spending time downtown. It sounded more like a group striking while the iron was hot, looking to convince more people to ride the groundswell of interest in downtown Brainerd.

"I think we have to dream big, think out of the box," Buxton told the editorial board.

Dream big they did. A few of the ideas floated by Buxton and BLAEDC include a hotel, senior and millennial apartments, an amphitheater, children's museum, performing arts center and a greenway connecting the core of downtown to the NP Center.

These are very big ideas, a few of which have been proposed before. But as Buxton noted, that's all they are at this point—ideas to get people excited about downtown, not a plan of what actually should or will be there. The fruition of these ideas, or any ideas for that matter, will come from private investors seeing the potential that is downtown Brainerd. Investment in downtown needs to be market driven, Buxton said, but there also has to be support from the public.

What makes this effort different than others is twofold, Buxton said—a city council that may be more amenable to new ideas and the fact that redevelopment is already happening in downtown.

Will all the ideas happen? More than likely not, and Buxton concedes that point. But it's a starting point for what could be, and even accomplishing a few of those ideas would be considered a success.

And not every idea has to be a big idea. Simple things such as pulling weeds and grass from buildings and sidewalks, sprucing up storefronts and fixing signage is just the start of what could be.

The impetus will be on private investors. Not just those looking to move into downtown Brainerd, but those already owning buildings and businesses there. The momentum is there and we hope the community will embrace it.

If nothing else, the ideas are building off what is already happening in downtown Brainerd, and that's encouraging. A thriving downtown, a renewed interest in the core of the city, is a reality and ideas like Buxton's and BLAEDC's are making its future look that much brighter.

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