Almost 200 turn out to talk about Brainerd’s future

Putting a new Vikings stadium in Brainerd probably won’t make the cut, but it was one of scores of ideas city residents tossed out earlier this week when they were asked to think about how to improve their community.

Close to 200 people showed up for a “community vision” session under the umbrella of the Initiative Foundation’s Healthy Communities Partnership. Brainerd is among four communities the foundation is working with this year to help residents engage and set priorities to solve problems. Two of those four — Todd County and Baldwin Township in Sherburne County — have been early focuses of the Ground Level project for MPR News.

We didn’t cover Brainerd or the fourth community, Eden Valley, with that intensity but those places also represent Minnesota residents trying to find ways to take action to improve quality of life.

Lisa Paxton, CEO of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber and a participant in the session, noted that one interesting thing about the Brainerd effort is that it’s focused on Brainerd itself, not the lakes vacation-land or the more well-off city of Baxter.

Brainerd is less prosperous than outsiders sometimes think, having to deal with a high proportion of older homes and rental dwellings, lack of vibrancy downtown, unemployment. It also has a long history of contentious local politics that sometimes sets it apart.

So what do people want to tackle? Here’s the short list of priorities Paxton gave me today. It will get narrowed in coming weeks:

–Combine the cities of Baxter and Brainerd.

–Restore downtown Brainerd as a destination.

–Tackle the chronic question of jobs.

–Provide places for teens to hang out.

–Come up with a young-adult gathering place that doesn’t involve alcohol.

–Turn Central Lakes from a two-year college to a four-year college.

Some of these are more systemic and difficult to deal with than others. A few things, like creating a summer choir or building a dog park, can be dealt with more easily and probably won’t need the full force of attention from the core team of interested residents.

But what I find instructive about looking at a wish list like this is that it reflects the mindset of a cross-section of residents. People want to live in a place with some vibrancy, so when 200 of them get together and describe what that might look like — whether it’s enticing the Vikings or silencing the train horns in town — it makes sense to pay attention.