Baldwin turns out to talk about tradeoffs

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(MPR photo/Chris Welsch)

Close to 150 people turned out at Princeton High School last night to see MPR News’ Ground Level forum on the future of Baldwin Township. More important, they came to talk about where they are heading. It was great to see the response to our work.

You can see the Nikki Tundel video portrait that started the evening and watch the audio-slideshow piece that reporter Curtis Gilbert performed live. And we’ll post the audio of the panel discussion and community conversation that ensued, managed very ably by host Kate Smith. (Our full Baldwin coverage, including Jennifer Vogel’s four-part series on the township’s future, is here.)

Our panelists were Chuck Marohn, a private planner and consultant; Sharon Pfeifer, a community assistance manager with the state Department of Natural Resources; and Eric Hedtke, attorney for the Minnesota Association of Townships. They started the discussion by talking about the values that Baldwin residents have to balance.

Desires for good roads, conservation of natural beauty and a small-town feel don’t always coincide with the hope for low taxes.

“People want to maintain what we have right now,” said town board chairman Jeff Holm. But he was clear that may not be possible, given the challenges brought by growth. Even if the boom times don’t return to this piece of exurbia, residents will be paying for past growth for years to come. Marohn referred to the “Ponzi scheme” of counting on future growth to pay for past developments.

Residents joined in a great and civil back-and-forth. Someone pointed out how low township taxes are compared to those for the county and the school district. Somebody else said, essentially, “Great, but I have to pay those taxes, too, and I need all levels to keep tightening their belts.”

Another resident made a plea for professional help to analyze tradeoffs in terms of hard numbers.

Hovering over the debate for some is the question of annexation versus incorporation. As resident Elaine Phillippi put it, “If you make too many mistakes, pfft, you’re Princeton.”

Said another, referring to past animosity both within the township and between the township and nearby Princeton, “For goodness sakes, people, let bygones be bygones at some point.”

One resident captured the tenor this way: “We all would like our slice of heaven to stay just that. But at some point somebody’s slice of heaven is going to become a rusted car lot with leaking batteries. We’ve got to have some rules.”

The conversation was very local — which roads need repair at what cost? — and at the same time universal — what do we want to do collectively as a community? Some of the comments would have been at home in any policy discussion. Whether it’s Baldwin Township or national health care, the debate isn’t entirely different.

Near the end, a woman who had been silent, sitting in the back of the beautiful Performing Arts Center, said, a little plaintively, “I really like it small, the way it is.”

The sentiment was poignant and heartfelt and I felt for this longtime resident who clearly loves the place that is her home. But after the previous hour and a half, I think it was clear to many in the room that it was a plea that might not be realistic.

It was great to foster that conversation, and the hope for us is twofold — that Baldwin residents for their own sakes keep that conversation going and that MPR News is able to bottle what we got to happen and take it to other communities in Minnesota.

Thanks to all who joined in and helped make it a great community conversation.

  • Dean Kleinhans

    Thanks MPR for your efforts in the Groundlevel project in Baldwin. I really appreciated being able to meet with and hear other Baldwin resident concerns and attitudes. The program on March 4 was effective combination of panelists experience with community members thoughts on what Baldwin is and how we might go forward.

    I was surprised to learn only 10 percent of Baldwin residents are active in a voting role. Hopefully this can increase as we take positive steps toward addressing our financial and personal lifestyle issues for our township.

    The prior articles in this series that discuss recent neighboring township actions in similar issues are very informative. This is the type of information that does not seem to have a forum for discussion in our daily activities surrounding the township. Our town board in the past several years has had commitees and activities seeking information to establish direction but I have not realized our neighboring townships are actually making the changes such as we discuss as necessary. I am encouraged that this project, along with Initiative Foundations project on Healthy Community will bring continued enthusiasm to the task.