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Back to the drawing board: Brainerd revisits comprehensive plan

Participants discuss ideas for Brainerd’s comprehensive plan concerning Ward 4 Thursday at Harrison Elementary School in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 2
A map of Brainerd is covered in stickers and sticky notes to mark places and ideas people would like addressed in Brainerd’s comprehensive plan for Ward 4 during the meeting Thursday at Harrison Elementary School. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch 2 / 2

In 2004, the city of Brainerd drafted a comprehensive plan. Now, 14 years later, city officials are going back to the drawing board and asking residents to join them, chalk in hand and opinions in mind.

The comprehensive plan represents the single most widely influential the Brainerd City Council will refer to in years to come, City Planner Mark Ostgarden said. While the city is undergoing the planning process "in house," or without contracting a private firm, Brainerd is being aided by the National Joint Powers Alliance and the Region Five Development Commission. In addition, the city created a 12-member steering commission and the update meetings represent another key factor in the equation: participation and input by the people of Brainerd.

"In essence, it's an expression of the community's vision for the future and a strategic map to reach that vision," Ostgarden told about a dozen people gathered Thursday, March 29, in the gymnasium of Harrison Elementary School. The gathering served as a focus group event, specifically for Ward 4.

"We are committed to the greatest extent possible to ensure we have a robust public participation process," Ostgarden said, "because the plan that is going to be put together is going to come from ideas and thoughts and suggestions from people like you."

During the presentation, Ostgarden rhetorically asked the attendees "Can we afford to grow?"—a question pointing to the central focus of the city comprehensive plan, which looks to guide Brainerd's future growth in a way that meets the needs of its residents for years to come, increases the population of Brainerd and does so in a fiscally feasible and responsible way.

"What we want is not just a bigger Brainerd, but a better Brainerd," Ostgarden said, in summation.

Attendees were asked to address three questions regarding the state of their neighborhoods:

• When you tell someone that you live in east/southeast Brainerd and they ask you what it is like, what do you tell them?

• What will it take to keep/attract future residents to your neighborhood?

• Life in a community is better when neighbors interact and look out for one another. What works to enhance this sense of community in your neighborhood? Share examples that can be used in your neighborhood to help residents to get to know, care for and celebrate with one another.

Common issues raised at the discussion tables included high levels of petty crime, the lack of viable jobs being created, forcing big box stores like Walmart and (along with their economic impact) into Baxter, housing shortages, poor neighborhood upkeep, as well as the loss of older structures in downtown Brainerd to unattractive new buildings and parking lots, among others.

In addition, attendees were given "Brainerd bucks," or metaphorical dollars to be used in an exercise when posterboard options were presented, such as infrastructure, the school district or housing. Attendees could "invest" in options, thereby indicating to the city where residents would like to see their tax dollars spent.

Lastly, attendees gathered in groups and huddled over blown-up aerial maps of Brainerd, whereupon they placed color-coded stickers on various points to indicate where they wanted improvements, sites preserved in their current state or features of the lots changed in some way.

John Stram, a resident of Ward 4 and the owner of seven private businesses, said going forward city officials should simply "think" and engage the issue from multiple angles to find the most effective means. By consulting and maintaining communication with people—residents, businesspeople, outside experts and others—planners and city officials can create their own opportunities benefiting the community, even when they themselves lack the expertise to address each and every specific issue.

"I think the city has good ideas. All they have to do is think them through and try not to say 'me, me, me,' and ask people what their ideas are," Stram said, who noted the city could offer many of their abandoned structures on the cheap to draw in job-generating businesses or affordable housing initiatives. "Just think, that's all you have to do."

The city of Brainerd hosted meetings for Ward 2 on Tuesday, March 27, and Ward 4 on Thursday, March 29.

Going forward, sessions are slated for Ward 3 (northeast Brainerd) from 6:30-7 p.m., Tuesday, April 3 at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 418 Eighth Ave.; and Ward 1 (much of southwest Brainerd, predominantly bordering the Mississippi River) from 6:30-7 p.m., Thursday, April 5 at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1420 S. Sixth St.