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Brainerd EDA ranks housing as top priority for revitalization grant funds

Brainerd received $765,000 as part of the Main Street Revitalization program from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

People get ready to leave on a motorcycle as a classic car drives down the street.
People hang out near the American Legion Wednesday, June 8, 2022, on Front Street in downtown Brainerd.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — Brainerd has about $765,000 available to award for revitalization projects in the city’s River to Rail corridor, and it will go toward projects aimed at housing, child care, small business support and landscaping.

Any projects requesting the money must be in the River to Rail corridor, which includes the area between the Mississippi River and the Northern Pacific Center, and from Washington Street to Oak Street.

Members of Brainerd Economic Development Authority discussed their priorities during a special meeting Wednesday, June 8, each listing the top three issues they would like to see addressed through the grant.

Five of the six members mentioned housing as one of their top priorities, and three mentioned child care. Kelly Bevans said he would rather spend the money on things you can’t get a return on. Housing and child care are extremely lucrative right now, he said, so anyone in those industries should be making a substantial amount of money. Instead, Bevans said he would like to see the grants go toward projects related to landscaping, signage and facade updates and overall blight reduction.

Mike O’Day, who noted child care and housing as two of his three priorities, said he believes there are housing and child care projects right now that could use financial assistance, like the YMCA’s efforts to expand their child care services.

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After housing, the next most popular category commissioners mentioned included landscaping, lighting, parking and green spaces, followed by child care and small business support.

O’Day and Toni Bieser both listed child care, housing and small business support in their top three, with Bieser saying small business support could include a number of things, including facade fixes and reducing blight.

“We need our town to grow, and those are the three things that will help our town grow and be prosperous,” Bieser said.

After tallying everyone’s opinions, commissioners decided on four top priorities. The first is housing, which would carry the most weight when determining if a project fits the criteria. The second is landscaping, lighting, parking and green spaces. Tied for third were child care and small business support, which would be weighted the lowest of the four priorities.

Once the priorities were determined, at the recommendation of Hickman, the EDA appointed a subcommittee to develop the applications and review them once submitted before they go in front of the EDA.

EDA Chair Gabe Johnson recommended five people he said he spoke to ahead of time and who would each bring a useful perspective to the table:

  • Marie Kirsch, downtown business owner, represents Destination Downtown Business Coalition.
  • Kevin Yeager, represents EDA.
  • Bruce Buxton, represents the River to Rail initiative.
  • Dave Badeaux, mayor of Brainerd, represents the city.
  • Mary Devine Johnson, represents Visit Brainerd, which focuses on downtown development.

“It’s a lot of downtown-focused people and organizations put on this committee, and I think they’ll do a good job,” Johnson said.

About the grant

Brainerd’s share of funds comes from a $4.5 million grant to the Initiative Foundation from the Department of Employment and Economic Development for its Main Street Economic Revitalization Program. The Minnesota Legislature approved the revitalization program last year, and Gov. Tim Walz signed it into law June 29, 2021.

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The program awards grants to nonprofit partner organizations, with the money designed to address the greatest economic development and redevelopment needs arising in Minnesota communities since March 15, 2020. That includes hardship suffered due to the pandemic, civil unrest and other challenges for commercial corridors since that date.

The grants are 30% matching grants, which City Administrator Jennifer Bergman explained as essentially a 2-to-1 match, meaning for every $1 of grant, the applicant would need $2 in matching funds. The matching funds cannot come from state or federal sources.

Along with grants, the program also includes up to $2 million in loans for eligible applicants. Bergman said the city intends to use all of its funds for grants and not loans, but that could change depending on direction from the Initiative Foundation.

The Initiative Foundation, based in Little Falls, allocated its money to downtown revitalization projects in various cities including Brainerd, Cold Spring, Little Falls, Long Prairie, Pine River and St. Cloud. Don Hickman, Initiative Foundation’s vice president of community and workforce development, tasked the Brainerd Economic Development Authority earlier this month with developing criteria by which to determine projects eligible for the money in the city.

River to Rail

Begun in 2017, the River to Rail initiative focuses on revitalization efforts in its specified area, much of which includes downtown Brainerd. In 2019, the City Council agreed to offer incentives like waiving sewer and water availability charges, along with building permit and inspection fees on projects less than $150,000. Bergman said the Initiative Foundation had to identify certain areas of work when applying for the grant and chose the River to Rail corridor.

The process

The subcommittee will work with the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp. to develop the applications and administer them to qualifying businesses and organizations. The EDA will have the final say on who gets the grants.

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Once Hickman signs the contract with DEED for the money — which he told the EDA June 2 would be some time the following week — the grant recipients have 36 months to use the funds. With supply chain issues plaguing the construction industry right now, Hickman said he will have to get clarification on how far along projects must be in the three-year window to be considered completed.

If Brainerd or another city receiving funds from the Initiative Foundation does not use its money in the allotted time, the Initiative Foundation will give those funds to a city that has already demonstrated traction. So if St. Cloud, for example, does not use all of its allotted money, Brainerd could receive the extra, and vice versa.

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The same goes for DEED as a whole, Hickman said. So if entities elsewhere in the state do not use all their money, the Initiative Foundation could get another allotment.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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