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Progress: Investing in 2016

The long recovery following the Great Recession found a hiring boom last year and in 2016, and construction and development plans followed. This year Brainerd's jobless rate of 5.2 percent hit a low it hasn't matched or seen in 15 years. As recen...

This year marks the first year of operations for the 54,000-square-foot FedEx Ground sorting and distribution facility in the Brainerd Industrial Park. The facility, which is south of the Crow Wing County Fairgrounds was completed in the fall of 2015. Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch
This year marks the first year of operations for the 54,000-square-foot FedEx Ground sorting and distribution facility in the Brainerd Industrial Park. The facility, which is south of the Crow Wing County Fairgrounds was completed in the fall of 2015. Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch
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The long recovery following the Great Recession found a hiring boom last year and in 2016, and construction and development plans followed.

This year Brainerd's jobless rate of 5.2 percent hit a low it hasn't matched or seen in 15 years. As recently as 2013, every month of the year-save one-was still in double-digit unemployment in Brainerd. But the tide began to turn in the spring and summer of 2014. The Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation stated the successes of 2015 created heightened anticipation for 2016.

"Over the past couple of years we are definitely starting to see construction, investment in equipment and people hiring," said Sheila Haverkamp, Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp. executive director. "I'm optimistic our area will continue to move forward at a healthy pace and we'll see job growth and creation in the years to come."

Haverkamp said they are continuing to see leads and prospects who are outside the lakes area but expressing an interest in being part of the market.

In recent years, multiple potential retail development projects seemed to evaporate as deal makers turned into tire kickers. But in 2016, retail appeared poised to make a jump start. HJ Development of Wayzata presented plans for two separate multi-store projects. One dubbed a junior box retail development was presented for wooded land between Costco and J.C. Penney Co. in Baxter. The other proposed to add a shopping center and two restaurants.

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After Costco joined the Baxter business landscape in 2012, expectations were other businesses would soon follow, especially in that section of the city. But a cascade of other construction didn't materialize. The names of retailers interested in the area have had a common refrain, including PetSmart, T.J. Maxx, Michaels.

The proposed junior box retail center in Baxter was identified with tenants of T.J. Maxx, PetSmart, ULTA cosmetics and an unnamed national sports retailer. HJ Development also presented plans for stores and restaurants on the undeveloped land on the southwest corner of Glory Road and Highway 371 across the street from Olive Garden.

Other proposals for business additions-particularly redevelopment attempts at the old Wal-Mart store site where Gander Mountain came and went. Excelsior-based Oppidan, completed its purchase of the former Wal-Mart store in late 2014 for a price in excess of $3 million, with plans to redevelop the 117,000-square-foot site.

In 2016, those plans gained new momentum.

The parking area, with its neglected pavement, is now oversized after Wal-Mart's move farther south. But in August a new proposal to construct two new buildings in the parking lot facing Highway 371 in front of Gander Mountain came forward. The proposal called for a coffee shop, dental office and retail and restaurant space. In addition, Oppidan stated there are plans to redevelop the Gander Mountain site as well in the near future. Expectations were for construction in 2017.

There were remodels such as Cub Foods in Baxter. And major landscape changes with the landmark Bonanza being razed for a new Riverwood Bank. New additions to the community included Mattress Firm, which is building a store along Dellwood Drive along the Highway 371 strip.

Royal Tire put an emphasis on Brainerd by tearing down its Washington Street store and putting a modern 6,200-square-foot building up on the same site. West Washington Street was noted for its redevelopment last year and that rennaisance may be poised for the street going east into Brainerd as well, as the former Plasteramics building was demolished and a grassy lot created in its place creating a future opportunity to resculpt a major thoroughfare in Brainerd.

Repurposing continued at the Brainerd Industrial Center, formerly the Wausau Paper Mill, and at the Northern Pacific Center in Brainerd. This year, Graham Technology's company Green Nature Cycle, a lawn specialist recycler and bio-fuel company, announced it would be leasing 40,000 square feet of space at the 600,000-square-foot BIC.

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Building projects added to Fairview Conservancy office park in Baxter and a new office building went up on Forthun Road for Chad Schwendeman's Exit Realty company with additional tenants included in the office building.

Retail development often gets the most attention for what it will offer consumers living and visiting the lakes area, but Haverkamp said the solid groundwork to support it needs to be laid by good-paying jobs and quality, affordable housing as well.

After a drought in construction in recent years, crews were busy building at multiple sites across the lakes area communities.

The much-anticipated Aldi grocery store was a recent addition to the Baxter offerings next to Target and appears to have found a steady following. Other plans, like the expected Dunkin' Donuts construction in Brainerd, never came to fruition. On the other hand, long-held dreams such as the Dennis Drummond Wine Company, took a promise and turned it into reality as ground was broken and work on the site to include a bistro and event center began in the summer of 2016.

Manufacturers and large employers were part of the mix in adding jobs. Haverkamp pointed to growth at Ascensus, which employs hundreds in Brainerd, and at Clow Manufacturing in Merrifield. Growth was visible in construction Construction for 48,200-square-foot Avantech building in the Baxter Industrial Park, which was completed in the spring of 2016. The manufacturer is the sister company of LINDAR Corporation, which is across the street. Avantech, formerly Lakeland Mold Company, is a leading manufacturer of cast and CNC aluminum tooling for the global rotational molding industry.

This year marks the first year of operations for the FedEx Ground sorting and distribution facility in the Brainerd Industrial Park. The facility, which is south of the Crow Wing County Fairgrounds was completed in the fall of 2015. It is the first building to go up in the Brainerd Industrial Park's 2007 expansion site.

Even with all this activity, it's not a complete list. There were multiple projects across the lakes area from construction for Dollar General in Pillager to efforts to re-open closed eateries and make fresh starts on Mill Avenue and on Highway 371 by Brainerd International Raceway. Traditions also changes as the venerable Iven's on the Bay closed and has a new future as Northern Cowboy Flame N' Brew. Countless entrepreneurs also took the plunge this past year to take a chance at being their own bosses. Filling all the jobs created with the growth may be one of the biggest challenges going forward as Enterprise Minnesota noted in its annual update on the state of manufacturing. It's a point echoed by the ubiquitous hiring signs and by area employers.

Tourism, a backbone of the lakes area economy, appeared to be in a strong position.

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Mark Ronnei, general manager of Grand View Lodge, said a trend is coming in a changed view of spending time up north. Ronnei said the change is coming from the goal of owning a getaway cabin in the lakes area to using the resorts to serve that function on multiple visits in a year. Visitors who don't want to spend their free weekend doing yard work and cabin maintenance and who have children looking for more to do are seeing a new way to get the lake experience.

So for a lakes area, battered by storms that damaged buildings and downed century-old trees, there were challenges in 2016. But there was also a rekindled investment.

At the Lakes Area Music Festival in Brainerd, co-founder John Taylor Ward said people often ask him about the festival-which brings world-class musicians to the Brainerd lakes area each summer. The most frequent question, Ward said, was: "Why Brainerd?" Ward said people here know why.

Building on its natural resources and its work ethic, the lakes area may not be at the super-heated growth witnessed before the long and painful Great Recession, but as BLAEDC's Haverkamp noted, it is poised for steady growth.

Factbox

Brainerd lakes area economic indicators (2014) from Brainerd Lakes Economic Development Corporation.

• 28,233 jobs, an increase of 534 compared to previous year.

• 5,000 home-based businesses.

• 2,074 companies.

• $678 average weekly wages.

• Interesting fact: For 25 consecutive years, the greater Brainerd lakes area has annually added an average of 500 jobs and 30 new companies.

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