BAXTER-A rollercoaster is perhaps the best way to describe the Baxter Village's history.
First opened in 2005, the commercial center has had its ups and downs and has seen a whole host of businesses come and go.
Original developer Andy Anderson-now president and CEO of Nor-Son Custom Builders-had big plans when the facility opened 13 years ago.
"Back in '05, the economy was going along very well," he said. "I felt the demand along with the growth allowed for a unique design that wasn't in the area quite yet. ... I wanted to create kind of a village-type look."
With three phases planned, Anderson began to see his vision come together when the first building complex came to fruition in October 2005. The four tenants were Famous Dave's, Among the Pines, Tumbleroos and the Gumdrop Tree, according to a Brainerd Dispatch article published at the time.
Phase Two came in 2007, but things didn't go quite as planned after that.
"The first building was built, the second building was built, and then the growth really stopped when the economy turned," Anderson said. "That's why the third building hasn't been built yet."
Though he was pleased with the work he accomplished in the years he had it, Anderson bid farewell to the Baxter Village in 2011.
"If the opportunity hadn't come I might have done things differently, but the opportunity came to part ways with it, and away it went," he said. "That's just part of business."
As foreclosure forced the door shut on Anderson's Village, restaurateurs Rich Proctor and Steve Letnes opened a new one-literally.
Famous Dave's closed by the time Proctor and Letnes came in 2013, so they saw an opportunity.
"It just made financial sense," Proctor said. "Our main goal was to get a restaurant in here, and then both retail centers were for sale, so we just figured for what we pay in rent we could probably just pick it up."
So the duo bought the village and opened The Boulder Tap House where Famous Dave's once stood.
Today, eight businesses call the Baxter Village home. From north to south, they are: The Boulder Tap House, Among the Pines, Bloom Designs, Pearle Vision, Ardor Boutique, Big Stone Therapies, CrossFit Grow and Center for Pain Management.
Among the Pines
Of the original Baxter Village tenants, only one remains-Among the Pines.
A business owner since 1998, Sue Conway relocated her gift shop and knitting studio from Pequot Lakes to the brand-new Baxter Village in 2005 and has been there ever since.
"I love it. I think I should be the poster child (for the Village)," Conway said. "If they have people that want to come and rent here, they should come and talk to me because I have been here since '05; I have been making it work."
Because of customer demographics and ongoing talk of the Highway 371 bypass in Pequot Lakes, Conway decided Baxter would be a better location for her business, which began as a home decor and gift store with a knitting studio in the back. But a few years after moving to Baxter, Conway decided the community didn't really need another gift shop.
"'What else interests me?'" Conway said she asked herself at the time. "And clothing interested me."
The store then transformed into half clothing and half knitting before Conway decided to do away with the knitting studio altogether.
Today, Among the Pines is a women's clothing boutique also specializing in local handmade jewelry.
"Generally the focus for me is to find vendors that won't be selling anywhere else, not only in Brainerd/Baxter, but actually up to Nisswa and Pequot," Conway said. "That's not always easy, but I do have a lot of really exclusive, very loyal vendors that when you walk in here it's not going to be the same everywhere."
That exclusivity is what sets Among the Pines apart from big box stores.
"People who want to shop at a boutique are going to follow that thought process where they're not looking to be repeats," Conway said. "Target's great for Target things, but they really want to identify themselves."
Conway and her team of personal stylists help Among the Pines customers find the right clothes and accessories for their identity through honesty-sometimes brutal honesty.
"They (customers) don't think you're going to be honest, and we're like, 'No, because you're going to walk out there and be our billboard,'" Conway said. "We're going to really help people walk out of here feeling amazing."
Personal stylist Jessica Richau helps with that goal.
"I'd say the best part about the job is helping that person that comes in and they have a unique need, like they need a dress for a wedding, or they just need some good wardrobe staples," Richau said. "And I think when they walk out of here with something that makes them really feel incredible, that's the best part about the job."
Richau, a longtime Among the Pines customer, likened her job to being backstage at a concert because she gets to see the inner workings of one of her favorite businesses. The personal stylist brings her knowledge of children's clothing to the store, which Conway said just expanded to include a little girl's section.
Another new endeavor for Among the Pines is the potential for online shopping.
"We're chatting about a website," Conway said. "Probably not everything in the store, but ... things that will feed from our Facebook page and our Instagram page for those insomniacs that like our store."
The online presence would add to the success Conway has enjoyed since moving her store to the Baxter Village.
"We continue to grow. We lose some people every year, but there's a lot of people that walk in and are kind of shocked that we've been here since '05," she said. "I encourage people to look around because businesses come and go, not only in the Baxter Village, but in town. Support your local community."
Besides getting people to explore the community, Conway said more variety and more businesses in general in the Baxter Village would help to boost her customer base. But there's one she would especially like to see.
"I feel like a coffee spot would be brilliant in here," she said. " Let's do a PSA (public service announcement); Dunn Brothers Coffee, there's a lovely spot right next to me."
Big Stone Therapies
David Hughes, part-owner of Big Stone Therapies on the other side of the Baxter Village, agreed about new businesses helping the current tenants.
"I think that when it was built and started, the hope was that it would fill up and be busy. It's been better probably the last two to three years," Hughes said, noting the additions of Ardor Boutique and CrossFit Grow, which are fairly new to the facility.
Hughes, like Conway, has seen a lot of changes in the Baxter Village over the years, as Big Stone Therapies opened there in 2006. Previously located between Famous Dave's (now The Boulder Tap House) and Morey's Seafood Markets (now across the street), the business outgrew its 2,000-square-foot facility and moved to where it sits now with double the space.
Baxter's Big Stone Therapies is one of the company's five private practice locations and joins more than 30 other Big Stones throughout the Midwest, primarily in southwestern Minnesota. Some locations are long-term care facilities and others are located within hospitals, including one at Lakewood Health System in Staples.
Within its 4,000 square feet of space in Baxter, the staff at Big Stone offers physical therapy, occupational therapy and health, speech language pathology, athletic training and other specialty services.
A physical therapy gym sits in the center of the clinic and includes an anti-gravity treadmill, a traditional treadmill, an elliptical, a recumbent elliptical bike, parallel bars and a leg press machine. The anti-gravity treadmill offloads a certain percentage of a user's bodyweight-up to 80 percent-to reduce stress on patients with conditions like arthritis while still allowing for the walking motion.
Occupational health includes working with local companies to do pre-employment screenings and assess a potential employee's physical abilities. Clow Stamping Co. is one example.
"They do press operations and make product there out of metal, and so they have to lift, push and pull certain amounts of weight," Hughes said. "So our therapists then assess that."
Functional capacity evaluations is another part of occupational health. If someone gets hurt at work, ending up with a permanent disability, therapists will assess how much work that person can still safely do.
Four therapists at Big Stone have backgrounds in sports medicine and work with high school athletes on concussion management and other training exercises.
Hughes himself is certified as a golf fitness pro and recently started offering evaluations for golfers to help with their physical capabilities-not necessarily their golf swings.
"We'll look at people's capacity to get in positions and hit a golf ball, looking at their flexibility, mobility, hip strength, low back, thoracic mobility," he said. "We would identify flexibility or weaknesses and then provide them with exercises."
Two therapists are vestibular certified, meaning they work with patients with balance, dizziness or vertigo issues to determine the cause of their symptoms.
A speech therapist visits the clinic a couple days a week to work with adults with speaking issues that might come from a stroke or other neurological causes.
A couple therapists are certified in the Parkinson's disease program, Big and Loud.
"A speech therapist would work with someone with Parkinson's because as they develop Parkinson's, not only do they have the physical limitation and short shuffling motions, but they also kind of lose their voice, so they aren't able to project," Hughes said, noting the therapists help patients with the ability to express what they need and regain their voices.
Big Stone's office manager works with Crow Wing Energized and a program through the American Diabetes Association to provide educational resources on weight loss and healthy eating to community members.
The Baxter clinic also provides staff members to cover therapy needs at two nursing homes in Aitkin and Little Falls.
Hughes said the clinic used to have a pediatric program for kids but has since transferred that service to the Big Stone facility at Lakewood Health in Staples. Hughes and his team work primarily with patients from middle school up to adulthood.
With all of these different services happening at Big Stone Therapies, the Baxter Village has been a good fit.
"I think the only challenges we've really ever had is that the building has open spaces," Hughes said. "It's pretty good location-wise, it's not hard to find, it's easy to access on and off the highway, the stoplight only a block away to get either direction. So (location) really hasn't been a significant challenge."
The location has also proved advantageous for CrossFit Grow owner Todd Halls, who moved his gym from Gull Lake Dam Road to the Baxter Village about a year and a half ago.
"Clearly the exposure is nice," Hall said of the development's location right off Highway 371, "but just having the extra room, being in the proximity to town has helped a lot of our athletes because they work in Brainerd or Baxter, and it's just closer and more convenient."
Halls-who has owned CrossFit Grow for five and-a-half years-expanded his business space with the move to Baxter, allowing him to add more equipment and meet the demands of a growing business.
But CrossFit Grow isn't your typical gym.
"We're not in the business of trading for gym access," Halls said. "We offer personal coaching with focus on fitness, nutrition and accountability. ... It's all set classes. It's small-group, personal training."
The classes focus on strength and conditioning.
"We run the same programming for the whole day, and then it changes daily," Halls said.
All classes have one or more coaches, with the coach to athlete ratio never exceeding 1-to-15.
"Everything is scalable and tailorable to wherever you're at in your journey," Halls said. "So we can have somebody that's brand-new on their second day training doing the same workout as somebody who's been with us for four years, just varying the intensity and loads, etc."
Workouts are tailored to fit even the gym's youngest athletes-5-year-olds.
"Kids have basically the same needs we do, right?" Halls said. "We hinge, we squat, we press, we pull. So we have them focus on basic strength movements with light loads.
"We teach them about nutrition and sportsmanship, and they get game time every day to keep it fun."
CrossFit Grow also tailors its workouts to fit athletes up to retirement age.
"Any age, any ability," Halls said. "It's about healthy lifestyle ... so much more than just coming to the gym."
It's also about building a community.
"Anybody that trains here for even a couple days can't help but notice the fact that we've got a very social community-oriented environment-positive, supportive, etc.," Halls said.
And again, the location helps.
"I wouldn't say there's been any challenges in relation to where we're located. It's been all positive," Halls said. "It has been a good experience being in the Baxter Village."
Center for Pain Management
Staff at the Center for Pain Management, on the south end of the village, had similar remarks.
"Being right off of 371 like that, it's pretty good," nurse manager Jennifer Zayas said. "And being local into the community is really nice for the patients."
Sitting in the Baxter Village since 2011, Baxter's Center for Pain Management is one of four in the state, joining locations in Bemidji, Sartell and Alexandria.
As the name implies, the four facilities specialize in pain management interventional procedures.
"We have a procedure room that's set up like an OR (operating room), and we perform injections on ... the cervical spine, the thoracic, lumbar spine, different joints," Zayas said. "Pretty much from head to toe is what we say."
Patients can also receive steroids and numbing medication and a treatment called radiofrequency neurotomy, which requires the burning of nerves to reduce pain.
"We also place spinal cord stimulators," Zayas said. "So we do trials for those and place those in our ambulatory surgery center in Alexandria."
Providing patients with sedation before procedures is something the center prides itself in.
"A lot of pain management interventional procedures, they don't provide sedation to help relax patients and make it through the procedure," Zayas said. "But that is something that we offer for all of our patients."
Anything that sets the Center for Pain Management apart from other clinics is beneficial, as Zayas said there's plenty of competition around.
"We were at first drawing a lot from northern, Bemidji and down," she said of the Baxter clinic when it opened. "But when we opened up our Bemidji clinic, then those patients like to stay in the Bemidji area. So I think the challenges are just the general competition-Crosby's pain management, Essentia's pain management."
But Zayas-who is stationed primarily in Sartell but works with all four facilities-again noted the accessibility of the clinic's Baxter Village location right off 371 as an advantage working in its favor, even though walk-ins don't account for a lot of the center's business.
"The majority of our business is based on referrals," Zayas said. "But also patients knowing about us helps because patients always have a choice."
And, luckily, the challenges of the location are minimal.
"Being part of a strip mall is sometimes a challenge," Zayas said. "It just depends on who your neighbor is, but we've had excellent neighbors."
At the other end of the Baxter Village's south building lies Ardor Boutique, marked with a wooden logoed bench surrounded by bright flower pots.
Inside the boutique, a sign welcomes customers with the phrase "ARDOOR is always open."
Nina Halls opened the store in 2017 as a second location to join the Nisswa Ardor Boutique she started in 2015.
The boutique carries women's clothing, shoes, jewelry, accessories and gifts.
"We carry fashion jewelry, and we also carry handmade jewelry," Halls said. "And one of our handmade jewelry lines is from a local designer."
The boutique's place in the Baxter Village has come with a few challenges for Halls.
"People don't realize there's as many businesses in the Baxter Village that there really are," she said. "People are in the habit of driving past. ... 'Oh, we didn't even realize you were there.' We get that all the time."
But Halls has an idea she thinks could help her and her business neighbors.
"Personally, I think that sidewalks coming off this way and/or things like that, even coming across from the water park, would be extremely advantageous because people can't just walk over," she said.
Bloom Designs owner Kate Kuepers also noted the quietness of the area and a lack of people passing by on foot, but as her business doesn't rely a lot on walk-ins, she doesn't see it as a huge issue.
"I think if I had wanted to run a flower shop, it maybe wouldn't be as conducive," Kuepers said of the Baxter Village. "But for what I need right now as far as the services I offer ... it's a nice spot."
Those services include floral arrangements for weddings-which Kuepers considers the primary focus of her business-but she also used her interior design expertise to expand to wedding planning as well.
"It was kind of a natural extension of my business, where I was doing planning for brides but not really recognizing that I was doing it," she said. "So about three years ago I started officially offering it as part of my services."
Kuepers works with brides of varying needs, whether they want to come to her store and pick everything out or if they just need a few floral arrangements.
"It's a diverse mix of clients," she said.
When Kuepers started her floral business seven years ago, she didn't have a retail space but instead used her home.
"It got to the point where I had filled our basement, our garage and two storage units. And I was just like, 'This is enough. I need to separate,'" she said. "My husband calls it separation of church and state, so it's like house and work."
About three years ago, Kuepers moved into the Baxter Village and finally gained that separation she needed.
"It changed my business," she said of the move. "I all of a sudden had a little bit more room to work. I had recognition that I didn't necessarily have before."
And she gained a whole studio to fill with her flowers, decorations, table settings and bridal accessories in a convenient location for her clientele.
"I love it because it's central to all of the different areas I'm at," she said. "I do a lot of work at Grand View (Lodge) and Madden's (on Gull Lake) and the NP Event Space, and I'm kind of right in between, and it's easy to get to."
The Baxter Village has fit Kuepers' needs well over the past three years.
"As far as ... improving upon for my needs, I don't really have anything (to change)," she said, noting her neighbors may have different views. "My retail friends may say something different because they're looking at it in a totally different light, and they would probably be more attuned to those things."
Even though she's enjoyed her Baxter Village location, Kuepers is set to move into the Northern Pacific Center in January.
"That was done for multiple reasons, the biggest being I work out there almost every weekend, so now to have my studio located right next to where my brides and grooms are touring," she said, "as far as moving inventory and setup, it's going to cut down on my labor."
Plus, she said, the Northern Pacific Center is a beautiful space and has some new renovations.
"We're excited to make the move," she said. "And, again, we'll be close to one our venues that we're at a lot."
Similar to Bloom Designs, Pearle Vision is a destination business that doesn't get a lot of traffic from passersby, but owner Chris Zimmerman said the Baxter Village has still proven to be a good location for his eye care business.
"Since we moved here, probably sales are up 30 percent," Zimmerman said.
Pearle Vision was previously located down the road in the current Family Chiropractic building at the Westgate Mall in Brainerd and Baxter. Zimmerman's dad-an optometrist-moved north from Mankato to work at the Westgate Mall location in 1979. He bought the business in the mid-1980s, bringing it into the family.
"Then he owned it until my wife and I bought it in '99," Zimmerman said, noting he moved to the Baxter Village four years ago.
Though the now-owner isn't an optometrist, he has worked in the eye care business for the last 30 years.
"I generally made the eyeglasses," Zimmerman said of his starting position at Pearle Vision at age 18. "That was pretty much behind the scenes stuff at that time for a couple years because I was just right out of high school."
From working behind the scenes to running the place, Zimmerman now oversees the business' staff of an optometrist, a manager, a lab tech and two opticians. Together, Pearle Vision staff members perform eye exams four days a week and also sell eyeglasses, prescription sunglasses and contact lenses.
Because much of Pearle Vision's business is appointment-based, Zimmerman said location isn't as important as it might be for others.
"I could be anywhere, pretty much," he said. "I guess some of it's walk-by traffic, but not a lot."
But the Baxter Village has given Zimmerman the additional space he needed for inventory, thus benefiting his business in the long run.
"This move has been excellent for us," he said.
The Boulder Tap House
Rounding out the Baxter Village on the north side is The Boulder Tap House, a restaurant Rich Proctor described as a "burger and beer place."
"We have 41 taps and sell a lot of burgers and wings," he said. "It's an elevated sports bar, I guess you could say."
A sports bar that's popularity has amplified the village.
"Boulder Tap House has been a tremendous asset to the center and also to the area," Anderson said, admitting the restaurant seems to fit in with the area a little better than Famous Dave's.
Other business owners were happy about the addition as well.
"The restaurant is really key to the whole overall image," Conway, of Among the Pines, said, noting how frustrating it was when business dwindled due to the loss of Famous Dave's and other village tenants.
And if Proctor and Steve Letnes' track record is any indication, The Boulder Tap House is here to stay. The two have also held onto Poncho and Lefty's Tex-Mex Grill for the last 20 years, Grizzly's Wood-Fired Grill and Bar for the last 15 and The Boulder Tap House in Alexandria for three.
With a strong restaurant and a variety of other offerings, the Baxter Village seems on the up and up. And it may continue to keep moving that way.
"We have a lot of people looking right now," Proctor said of the few empty spaces that still lie within the village. "And our goal is to definitely fill them up."
Though he can't claim ownership anymore, Anderson still takes pride in seeing what the Baxter Village has become.
"Obviously the area's very special to me, and I'm proud of how it turned out. I think it looks great," he said. "As things recover and have recovered, you're seeing more and more progress. ... And it's nice now to see cars filling up the parking lot and moving forward."
Business: The Baxter Village.
Number of business in Baxter Village: Eight separate businesses within the facility.
Interesting or little known fact: The last of the three buildings planned for the facility back in 2005 was never built because of the struggling economy.