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Bringing feet to the streets: DeTOUR Downtown seeks art, events during summer reconstruction

Nearly 50 people listen as the DeTOUR Downtown project is explained at a Monday night meeting in the Koop building in downtown Brainerd. Artists of all kinds were invited to learn more about the initiative intended to draw people downtown during the summer reconstruction of South Sixth Street. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 2
Vicki Chepulis (right) of the Five Wings Art Council discusses the DeTOUR Downtown project, an initiative seeking to draw people to downtown Brainerd during the planned South Sixth Street reconstruction this summer. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 2

A vibrant public square bustling with people listening to outdoor music, admiring murals and poetry chalk art, or creating art themselves—this is a vision of downtown Brainerd shared Monday.

Nearly 50 people gathered in the Koop Building to learn about the DeTOUR Downtown project, an initiative with the goal of attracting people downtown during a lengthy summer reconstruction project of one of the city's main thoroughfares, South Sixth Street.

"What that (the reconstruction) is going to do is that's going to create an issue for downtown Brainerd," said Mike Angland, an architect and representative of organization Brainerd Restoration. "It's going to limit access, it's also going to potentially restrict the number of people coming downtown to eat, to shop, to go to different places."

The state of the former home of the Iron Rail bar in the Koop Building—long fluorescent lights dangling vertically from the ceiling, unfinished floors and walls—is one of transition and renewal. It seemed an appropriate backdrop for a discussion on the future of the city center, experiencing renewed revitalization efforts and an increased emphasis on the area's arts offerings.

Those spearheading the DeTOUR Downtown project hope to raise $50,000 through social crowdfunding, in turn offering grants of $500-$2,500 to individuals or groups with an art project idea to take place in downtown Brainerd this summer. The parameters for projects are broad—they could include permanent fixtures, such as murals or sculptures; temporary works, including chalk art, directional signage or pop-up galleries; or events, featuring music, dance, theater, puppet shows or more. The unifying requirements ask artists to collaborate with others and to include a public event element, explained Vicki Chepulis of the Five Wings Art Council.

"It's our job to come up with projects that are so exciting and enticing and fun, that they want to get people downtown," Chepulis said. "It also will connect people through collaborations, but also through your activities ... and then finally, to change that narrative. That narrative of, 'It's downtown, there's a lot of traffic, I'm not going to find what I want,' to, 'Hey, have you been downtown? Last time I was down there, there was an artist who was making a mosaic and a mural.'"

Chepulis pointed to numerous examples of "creative placemaking" in other communities, including nearby Long Prairie, where a mosaic public art installation came together with the input of anyone who wished to participate. Bandied about in academic circles, the term "creative placemaking" has shown up more frequently within the vocabulary of area organizations seeking to effect positive change on communities. Chepulis defined it as "the act of people coming together to change overlooked and undervalued public and shared spaces into welcoming places where community gathers, supports one another and thrives."

Elissa Hartwig of Brainerd was one of the artists who attended to learn more about the summer project. Hartwig said she relished the opportunity to help her city gain momentum.

"I think the opportunity to help the Brainerd community thrive, when sometimes in the past it's lost its momentum—to try to get that momentum going again and keep people engaged with this downtown business area that has so many things to offer," said Hartwig, a stained glass and fiber artist. "It's got so many unique shops and that shopping experience. Everyone's funneled out to Baxter and its concrete pavement highway. ... This isn't what downtown Brainerd is. It's historical."

In addition to Brainerd Restoration and the Five Wings Art Council, other groups involved are the city of Brainerd, The Crossing Arts Alliance, the Region Five Development Commission and some private business owners, including Sarah Hayden Shaw, who along with husband Ed, owns the Koop Building.

Cheryal Hills, executive director of Region Five, said asking the community to fund the projects through crowdsourcing was a first for the organization. She sees DeTOUR Downtown as an initiative with the potential to serve as a model for other central Minnesota communities—not only during short-term construction projects, but as a tool for revitalization as a whole.

"We want people in this community, we want people to know how cool Brainerd is. It is not the lost community in the region. It is vibrant, and there's so much synergies going on right now. ... all of the businesses that have been here and the people who have lived here have so much to give," Hills said.

"We want this project to be a model for the region, for other communities like Sebeka and Osakis that could use some love in their downtowns as well. So we're hoping this is somewhat of a first step for revitalization of our whole region—that we can use artists and your creative juices to help our economies. That's our goal."

How to participate in DeTOUR Downtown

Requests for proposals to create a piece of art or direct an activity of some kind in downtown Brainerd this summer will be accepted April 1-20. Artists of any kind may apply.

Proposals will be reviewed April 27, and artists who've been accepted will be notified in early May. Artists selected for the project will be eligible to receive $500-$2,500 to support their project, with no financial match required.

A crowdfunding campaign will begin in June, another opportunity to support the effort. The projects will occur between July 1 and Sept. 30 in downtown Brainerd.

For more information, contact The Good Life at Region Five at 218-894-3233, Ext. 3, or the Five Wings Art Council at 218-895-5660 or 877-654-2166.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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