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Fine weather boosts 2018 Night to Unite in Baxter

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Master Rob Nelson of Ultimate Martial Arts gives a karate lesson Tuesday, Aug. 21, during the Night to Unite at Oscar Kristofferson Park in Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video2 / 3
K-9 Rossi checks out the crowd watching him during the K-9 officer's demonstration of his skills Tuesday, Aug. 21, during the Night to Unite at Oscar Kristofferson Park in Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video3 / 3

BAXTER—Fine weather, fun festivities, good turnout—that's the recipe for a successful 2018 Baxter Night to Unite.

Gathering in Oscar Kristofferson Park Tuesday, Aug. 21, droves of people took part in the annual citywide bonding event—primarily young families with children, though a few seniors joined in and enjoyed themselves as well.

Snacking on root beer floats and munching on hot dogs and burgers courtesy of the Baxter Lions Club, attendees were treated to a host of attractions that had a utilitarian feel—utilitarian, because along with the crash-course martial arts exhibit and a little birdhouse-building arts and crafts table, there loomed iron giants leaving kids wide-eyed: fire trucks, helicopters, cranes and more.

That's because while the Night to Unite is billed as a way to bring the town together, Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted said, its origins—and the people who still organize the event—are police officers of the department. Baxter's Night to Unite first began as an opportunity for cops to interact with kids in a friendly, collaborative way and much of the event still functions that way today.

Thus, it was only natural to branch out, as he put it, and invite other public emergency services from the city all the way up to the county level. In time, Exsted said, it became an event Baxter could call all its own, versus the kinds of draws typically taking place in Brainerd.

"It was a great opportunity for Baxter to create an event. We don't really have anything specific to Baxter," Exsted said. "You know, Brainerd has the Fourth of July and we thought, 'Let's try this.' We've been doing it 12, 14 years now."

And, for 2018 at least, Mother Nature delivered—a balmy afternoon and evening filled with sunshine and clear weather.

While showers earlier in the day looked like the festivities might be derailed, Mayor Darrel Olson said it was some of the best weather he's seen for the Night to Unite after years often featuring unfavorable weather of every kind.

"We've had sweltering hot weather, we've had borderline tornadoes where the helicopter had to leave and things were flying," said Olson, soaking in the sun's rays as he sat and chatted with folks at the pavillion. "It just couldn't have been any more perfect than tonight. Absolutely perfect weather."

Olson estimated—based off of used root beer float cups and a quick scan of the parking lot—this year's turnout rivals the 2017 Night to Unite, which saw numbers in the 400s.

That's hundreds of people, out spending quality time together, in an event strengthening ties between households and neighborhoods, Olson said.

"The residual of that is that the neighbors get together and get to meet people they've never seen before, realize they know the person who lives two doors down," Olson said. "It's a multitude of good things that come out of a night like this."

Jay Bautch, a resident of Brainerd, said he came out because he works with the Brainerd Fire Department and has a sister on the Baxter Police Department—though, he also had a little tow-headed tyke with him, his 4-year-old son. At the time, they were constructing a wooden periscope with materials provided by Home Depot.

"He's good with the hammer, he's good at pounding the nails in. He likes building with blocks (at home)," Bautch said of his son, who at that point seemed a little tuckered out and was resting against his father's shoulder. "(The kids) are all excited for school, so they get to meet with friends from class to see what classes they have together."

While the event featured booths primarily for utilities and public service organizations like Crow Wing Power, the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office and helicopter-ambulance service Life Link III, there were a few corporate groups like The Home Depot present at the gathering.

Exsted said they wanted to bring everyone in the community together—and that includes the retailers—but there was one stipulation: the kids come first, not the product.

"We didn't want to commercialize it on the front end," Exsted said.

Ultimately, what brought Breena Clayton and Michelle Malcho, both of Baxter, to the Night to Unite, was an opportunity to get their kids out of the house and playing with other children, gawking at utility vehicles and nabbing a free root beer float while they're at it.

Though, both women said, there's an added perk when they run into someone they know or a member of the community they've heard about, but never seen in person.

"My kids have a blast. They love all the ambulances and the helicopter landed when we got here—they were super excited about that," said Clayton, who brought her two children, ages 3 and 1. "As soon as they finish eating we are going to be exploring more of the options out there."

"It's good to see friends and familiar faces from the community," added Malchow, who had a 2-year-old and 4-year-old in tow. "Beautiful weather. We're enjoying it so far. Kids are playing in the park, checking out the fire trucks, the helicopter was pretty awesome."

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