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Brainerd candidates speak out at forum

Candidates for positions on the Brainerd City Council in a forum Tuesday morning touched on challenges facing the city, as well as assets the city can capitalize on to promote growth.

Candidates for Brainerd City Council await the start of a forum Tuesday morning at Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes in Baxter. Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch
Candidates for Brainerd City Council await the start of a forum Tuesday morning at Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes in Baxter. Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch

Candidates for positions on the Brainerd City Council in a forum Tuesday morning touched on challenges facing the city, as well as assets the city can capitalize on to promote growth.

The Brainerd and Baxter Candidate Forum at Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes in Baxter gave people a chance to hear from candidates for local office and to ask them questions about issues shaping the two cities.

A major theme the Brainerd candidates touched on was how the city of Brainerd is perceived by residents and outsiders versus the reality of the city's current situation.

It's easy to say the city has problems, Brainerd Mayor Ed Menk said, and it's challenging to overcome stigmas associated with the city. Perception is an issue inside and outside the city, he said. People think downtown Brainerd isn't a good place to do business, he said, but he's owned a downtown business for decades and has shown it can work.

"The easiest thing we can do is to change the perception, but it's also the hardest thing to do," Menk said.

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The city's biggest successes are the parks system and Brainerd Public Schools, said Dave Badeaux, candidate for Brainerd City Council Ward 3. It's a great place to live, filled with good people, he said, despite what the perception of the city may be. Too many people in the city feel the council speaks down to them, he said, and doesn't do a good job of explaining some issues to residents.

"Those things have to change and they have to change immediately," Badeaux said. "If we on the council speak to the residents in the tone that we have, they will not have the type of perception we're looking to have."

The city's water and sewer capacity can support expansion, said Patrick Wussow, candidate for one of two at-large seats on the city council. The city staff is well-educated and can handle necessary jobs, he said, but the challenge is to change how residents and businesses perceive the city.

There's the perception the city council is too focused on the here and now and isn't looking to the future, said Jan Lambert, candidate for one of two at-large seats on the city council. The council needs to remedy this by planning for the future, she said.

The city needs to work on how it's perceived, but those changes will be made in small steps, said Kevin Goedker, candidate for Brainerd mayor. The perception the city isn't business-friendly needs to change, he said.

Business growth

Another key issue the candidates touched on was how the city can promote business growth.

The city is full of opportunities, like good health care systems, schools, jobs and a reasonable cost of living, Menk said. The city can promote those attributes to attract new business or help existing businesses expand, he said. Street improvements need to focus on moving traffic in and out, he said, which helps neighboring businesses.

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Brainerd is becoming more business friendly, said Dale Parks, candidate for one of two at-large seats on the city council. The city's recent relaxation of offstreet parking requirements for businesses is a sign of that, as well as its promotion of the Brainerd Industrial Center, the Brainerd Industrial Park and downtown Brainerd.

There's been tremendous business growth in the past four years, said council member Gary Scheeler, who currently represents Ward 3. The Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport utility extension project will benefit the part of the city Scheeler represents, he said.

"Northeast Brainerd, I want to say this, will be the fastest-growing area in Brainerd," Scheeler said.

Scheeler works in commercial and residential real estate, so he works frequently with businesses and learns why they come to Brainerd, he said. There's going to be a lot of development coming to Brainerd, he said, and the city council will need his experience to handle it.

If elected, Kevin Stunek would focus on revitalizing existing businesses, he said. Stunek is a candidate for one of two at-large seats on the city council. As a former fire chief in Brainerd, he worked closely with people in the surrounding area, a tactic he would use if elected to bring success to the city.

The state of Minnesota gives cities and counties a variety of tools to entice businesses, said Wussow. He's in favor of using tax abatement or tax increment financing when necessary, he said, but his discussions with businesses have revealed businesses mostly just want the city to reduce barriers to business growth.

"More often than not, they want us to get out of their way," Wussow said.

Collaboration is key when it comes to business development, Goedker said. When the city solicits input from business owners, it's important to heed the advice, he said, and not ignore it.

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"The elected officials up here are not necessarily experts," Goedker said. "And we need help."

The council should focus on growing small businesses and industries and not attracting big box stores, Badeaux said. He'd like to see the city level the playing field by giving the same advantages to small businesses that cities often give to large national chains.

"We can collaborate them and work together to help them, as opposed to getting in their way," Badeaux said.

It's important to draw new business to the city in order to broaden the tax base, said Jan Lambert, candidate for one of two at-large seats on the city council. The city can do that by collaborating with different organizations, she said.

Downtown vision

A question from the audience asked the candidates what their dream was for downtown Brainerd and how to make people excited to go to downtown.

Downtown Brainerd should look to provide niche items people can't find at the big box stores, Menk said, which will draw people to the area.

The city should bring more family-friendly events to downtown Brainerd, Goedker said. He cited Arbor Lakes, a commercial and residential district in Maple Grove, as a model to strive for.

Like Goedker, Stunek said he loved Arbor Lakes in Maple Grove, and would love to see the core downtown blocks be car-free and pedestrian-friendly. He suggested turning the top floor of the Parker building into luxury apartments.

The city should focus on revitalizing the housing in downtown Brainerd, Badeaux said, which would draw young professionals to the area and subsequently the businesses to cater to them. As a kid, he said he had a dream of living in the upper floor of the Parker Building, which houses E.L. Menk Jewelers.

Downtown Brainerd can be more friendly to bicyclists and pedestrians, Parks said. All the candidates have the same general idea, he said, but it comes down to taking small steps to move forward.

There are challenges with how downtown Brainerd relates to the Business 371 corridor, Scheeler said, which is essential for business. The industrial parks in south Brainerd use that route, he said, and the city doesn't want that traffic rerouted to Baxter. A convention center in downtown Brainerd would be nice, he said.

"I would like to make it business-friendly," Scheeler said. "But it's still going to have to handle our future growth going south."

The city's downtown foundation of business occupancy on ground floors with residential housing in upper floors is desirable, Wussow said, the city just needs to improve it. His dream would be to see a variety of businesses attracting people from throughout the state to a vibrant area.

A challenge for downtown Brainerd is making it accessible to people in neighborhoods across Washington Street, Lambert said, possibly by constructing a walkway across Washington Street.

Changes?

Matt Kilian, president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, asked the candidates what they would do differently if elected.

The city's budget has grown significantly in the last 10 years, and Scheeler said he would redistribute the budget to find a way to fix things like the historic water tower and the Gregory Park fountain, without raising the tax levy. The city also plays "big brother" by contributing the bulk of the funding to things like the Northland Arboretum, he said, so he'd like to solicit more help from the community to pay for those things.

The council needs to change how it communicates with the citizens, Stunek said, and needs to do a better job of understanding the community. He'd also like to tap into the students at Brainerd High School and Central Lakes College, he said, because they're the future of the area.

Wussow would evaluate how the city provides services to find out if the city is doing things in the most efficient, cost-effective way. He would work with staff to find out if there's ways to make their jobs easier.

"Little changes can make a significant difference to provide the best, most cost-effective service to our residents and businesses," Wussow said.

Dan Hegstad, who was involved in the Mississippi River Partnership Plan, asked the candidates if they supported the plan and what they would do to move it forward. All the candidates said they supported developing the riverfront, but agreed funding the project would have to be addressed.

INFOBOX

Mayor

• Kevin Goedker

• Ed Menk, incumbent

City Council at large, elect 2

• Jan Lambert

• Dale Parks

• Kevin Stunek

• Patrick Wussow

City Council ward 3

• Dave Badeaux

• Gary Scheeler, incumbent

City Council ward 1

• Dave Pritschet, incumbent

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