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Towns like Fergus Falls and Alexandria invest in quality-of-life efforts to ensure vitality

Committed residents pull together to enliven Main Streets, attract businesses and young families, nurture the arts, improve education and instill confidence that their towns will thrive.

Second of two articles

The McKnight Foundation commissioned writer and consultant Jay Walljasper to do a series of reports looking at the prospects and challenges in Minnesota’s 80 counties outside the metro area. This is the second of two articles drawn from his latest report, “North By Northwest: Rural Resilience in Northwest and North Central Minnesota” [PDF]. The first article is here. Walljasper’s earlier report on southeast Minnesota is available here [PDF] and northeast Minnesota here [PDF].) North central and northwest Minnesota are defined here as the corner of the state west of a line from St. Cloud to Warroad, and north of I-94 or Minnesota Highway 27 west of Alexandria.

Brainerd native Charles Marohn, a planning engineer and influential national authority on creating vital communities, offers a common-sense and controversial perspective on the future of Minnesota’s small towns and cities. “It’s simple,” he declares. “Communities need to stop thinking they can import prosperity” by attracting a big employer to town or undertaking some massive project. “You can’t make instant success like you do instant mashed potatoes.”

A more effective strategy is “bottom-up investment,” he believes. “Focus on how to make it a better place for people who live here right now. If you do that year after year, you’ll have a great place that attracts people and business.”

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Marohn outlines how this idea could work for his hometown of Brainerd, which is struggling with poverty and unemployment, in the report “Neighborhoods First: A low risk, high return strategy for a better Brainerd.” Published by Strong Towns, the national organization Marohn leads, the report is introduced with the observation that “cities across the country are starting to realize that the ‘big project’ approach takes up too much staff time, wastes too much political energy, and distracts too much from the basic needs of existing neighborhoods. Risky, low returning projects too often become expensive boondoggles that haunt a community for decades.”

He then proposes eight important projects for Brainerd’s future, which together cost a modest $16,800. They include bike lanes, a pedestrian corridor, safer pedestrian crossings, and tree planting, all in lower-income neighborhoods. While this might sound like a “kids’-meal” version of your typical big-city liberal agenda, Marohn, 42, identifies himself as a “conservative” (revealing he has “never voted Democratic for president”), and still lives in the Brainerd area with his wife and two school-age kids.

A key foundation of Strong Towns’ philosophy and its plan for Brainerd is fiscal restraint, which is explained as 1) not “taking on onerous long-term liabilities or gambling on speculative future development” and 2) not becoming “dependent on local government aid and other, unstable funding from state and federal sources to provide basic services.” Marohn contrasts his proposal with Brainerd’s current economic development policies, such as $9 million for widening a two-mile stretch of road popular as a short cut out of town, or forking over 26 years of tax subsidies to a Taco John’s restaurant.

Marohn thinks a better path to success is smaller, sounder investments that improve people’s quality of life, “which boosts the livability of the town and gives it a whole different view of itself, which creates the conditions for investment to come in.”

Marohn points to Wadena and Fergus Falls as regional examples of strong towns, which he defines as places where “you see the quality of life going up for everyone. Not booming in a gold rush sort of way, but things are getting better gradually.”

Fergus Falls: The art of community

While not a tourism center, college town, or high-income enclave (the usual contenders in rankings of the best small communities), Fergus Falls (pop. 13,000) would strike most people as a nice place to live. rated it #62 on its list of the Top 100 Best Small Towns in America (Alexandria was #22; Bemidji #74), citing its good schools, quality health care, shopping options, natural amenities, and arts offerings.

Lake Alice, offering Lake-of-the-Isles ambience with classic early 20th-century architecture, lies three blocks from Main Street. The falls themselves are just a block away in the other direction, and mark the starting point for a nature trail running alongside the Otter Tail River. Well-kept Lincoln Avenue could stand in as a 1940s Main Street in a movie, with the Viking Cafe, the City Bakery, Lundeen’s stationery, Olson Furniture, Biffley’s used books, a Sears appliance store, a drugstore, dance studios, jewelry stores and law offices.

But Fergus Falls is not frozen in time. Around the corner from Lincoln Avenue is a foothold of 2010s hipster culture. It’s home to the Union Avenue Pizza & Brewing Company, which offers its own house-made beer and brick-oven pizzas, as well as Café 116, serving coffee amid a retro dinette décor, and Riverfront Square, a vintage and gift shop. Even Main Street has been updated with boutiques, the Body Mind Center for wellness, Don Pablo’s Mexican restaurant, and the Kaddatz Galleries. The movie theater is now home to the Center for the Arts, which showcases touring musicians, community theater, choir concerts, and other performing arts.

Fergus Falls is turning to the arts to fortify its quality of life and attract new residents and businesses. That’s why St. Paul-based Springboard for the Arts, whose mission is to strengthen communities and artists by tapping their creative potential, said yes when the Lake Region Arts Council invited it to open a field office in Fergus Falls. “Just like in urban neighborhoods, artists are gatherers and story tellers of the things that set our communities apart, and they can also be the first wave of things to change,” explains Springboard Rural Program Director Michele Anderson.

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A number of younger artists have moved to Fergus Falls seeking lower rents for housing and studio space, observed Anderson, 33, a classical pianist and composer who moved from Portland, Oregon. “But it’s more than money. Young people today want to help shape the places we live, whether we are artists or not. In a small town you can step up and do that. I liked Portland, but didn’t feel I could make a difference there,” she says. “Here I feel like I am involved every day in helping make things happen.”

Among other towns in the area embracing arts and culture to ensure their vitality are Vining, featuring mammoth depictions of everyday objects such as a clothespin in the Nyberg Sculpture Park; and New York Mills, where the Regional Cultural Center sponsors a jam-packed calendar of music, film, yoga classes, a puppet pageant, a kite festival and The Great American Think-Off, a philosophy debate that put the town on the map for folks outside Minnesota.

Alexandria: keeping downtown lively

Ranked #22 of America’s best 100 small towns by, Alexandria (pop. 11,000) has taken steps to ensure its appeal as a place to live by making downtown more inviting. The main street, Broadway, is also Minnesota Highway 29, which meant that heavy traffic hurrying through the five-block shopping district tarnished the town’s quality of life. That’s why Alexandria undertook a project in 2014 to widen sidewalks, narrow traffic lanes, and encourage motorists not to speed through town.

The results could be seen immediately. Traffic accidents were down 49 percent in 2015, compared with the average from 2009 to 2013, on this five-block stretch of Broadway, according to city engineer Tim Schoonhoven. “Wider lanes tell people to sail through here as fast as you can,” says Alexandria city planner Mike Weber. That’s bad for business as well as for people on foot. “People can’t shop from their cars. Shoppers are pedestrians.”

Alexandria Tourism
Ranked #22 of America’s best 100 small towns by, Alexandria (pop. 11,000) has taken steps to ensure its appeal as a place to live by making downtown more inviting.

Alexandria’s downtown improvements are part of its Complete Streets policy — an innovative approach to planning adopted by a number of Minnesota cities and counties (and the state itself) that looks out for the needs of all users on public roads, not just motorists. Another project in Alexandria is the Safe Routes to School program to promote biking and walking for kids, which led to building sidewalks on streets near an elementary school that had none.

Battle Lake: It takes a whole town to stay vital

Battle Lake (pop. 875) is also embracing Complete Streets in its aspiration to attract young families and new businesses. “We didn’t want to be another small town on the prairie that loses people, loses our school, and becomes a ghost town,” explains Dan Malmstrom, a local resident who started Douglas Scientific in Alexandria and other high-tech companies.

Better conditions for biking and walking are a key part of this strategy. When local folks heard that Minnesota Highway 78 running through downtown would be resurfaced, they persuaded the Minnesota Department of Transportation to narrow it from four lanes to three and substantially widen the sidewalks. The middle lane accommodates turns in either direction — a new design known as a “road diet” that curbs speeding and reduces crashes by 29 percent, according to Federal Highway Administration research.

Reba Gilliand — who works at a nonprofit art gallery and is part of an ad hoc group of more than 100 people pushing to invigorate Battle Lake — stresses that calming traffic is only the tip of the iceberg. Over the past three years, citizens have approved a school levy to improve education, worked to bring natural gas to Battle Lake, beautified downtown with striking mosaics, sponsored numerous social events like the now-annual Pumpkin Fest and are busy planning Battle Lake’s 125th birthday celebration this year

The most noticeable change in Battle Lake is a more lively downtown.

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“In the summer you can hardly walk down the street,” Gilliand enthusiastically reports. A popular Fergus Falls bakery opened a branch here, joining a pharmacy, lumberyard, tavern, vintage store, and other eateries. Meanwhile the “world’s biggest coloring book” awaits kids in a refurbished, car-free alley, with chalk available in an old post box.

“You still hear some grumbling about we don’t want to be an art town, we want to stay the way we are,” admits Gilliand, who then quickly notes that 30 more kids were enrolled in the school last year than the year before. “The drive with all this is to get more families with kids to come here.”

Frazee: where the trails lead

Besides Portland, Boulder, San Francisco, Madison, and Minneapolis, the list of Bicycle Friendly Communities from the League of American Bicyclists includes Moorhead, Bemidji, and Frazee, all in northwest Minnesota. Moorhead and Bemidji are college towns, but Frazee? Well, Mayor Hank Ludtke, a retired truck driver, envisions making Frazee into Minnesota’s premier trail town — a center for all kinds of outdoor recreation.

Indeed, three distinctly different kinds of trails connect here. The popular Heartland State Trail, used primarily by bicyclists and snowmobilers, is slated to come to town on its eventual route from Park Rapids to Moorhead. The North Country Trail, a 4,600-mile hiking path (about half-developed) from North Dakota to New York State (akin to the Appalachian Trail) winds through Frazee along the Otter Tail River. The river itself is a designated state water trail for paddlers, who can cover 175 miles between Rochert and Breckenridge.

Tourism plays a role in the mayor’s plans, but his major aim is attracting new residents. The city’s unique geography as a peninsula virtually surrounded by lakes and the river makes it unattractive as an industrial site, he explains. “So if we are going to be a bedroom community to Perham and Detroit Lakes, let’s be a really good one.”

Ludtke won office on a platform of increasing the town’s appeal to older people and young families with kids, both of which prize outdoor recreation. In addition to plans for capitalizing on the trails, he has overseen the creation or planning of new on-street bike lanes, a bike/ped path leading to the elementary school, a bike safety course for kids, a Safe Routes to School program, a police-on-bikes program, and public kayak and canoe facilities.

“Being outdoors is good for kids’ and everybody’s health. You see nature, have fun,” exalts Ludtke.

Looking ahead

North central and northwest Minnesota face challenges the same as rural regions all over the country: an aging population, the exodus of college-age kids, regular slumps in agriculture and industry, a shortage of jobs paying middle-class wages and marginal Internet service in some locales. Yet their biggest problem is a stubbornly pervasive sense that small-town Minnesota is played out, depleted of talent and resources after 100 years of decline. Many people both inside and outside the region believe that young people’s only hope is getting out, and everyone who stays should not expect much in terms of opportunity, services or community quality of life.

This part of the state is full of folks who don’t buy that story. These are the committed residents who pull together to enliven Main Streets, attract businesses and young families, nurture the arts, improve education and instill confidence that their towns will thrive in the years to come.