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Brainerd wants back in the loop as center of Lakes Area

BRAINERD -- It used to be that on busy summer weekends here, a line of cars and campers stretched for miles, clogging downtown streets in a city known as a vacation hot spot. Sometimes, traffic was so heavy that it took 40 minutes for motorists t...

BRAINERD - It used to be that on busy summer weekends here, a line of cars and campers stretched for miles, clogging downtown streets in a city known as a vacation hot spot. Sometimes, traffic was so heavy that it took 40 minutes for motorists to crawl past 50 neighborhood streets and through nine traffic signals.
But these days, most of the cars and campers run past Brainerd’s border to the west, where a constant flurry of vehicles - many driven by tourists toting kayaks and bicycles - stops to stock up on vacation supplies in the neighboring city of Baxter.
It’s known as the Brainerd Lakes Area - not the Baxter Lakes Area. But ever since the Highway 371 bypass opened in Baxter in August 2000, giving tourists and cabin-goers an alternative to the stoplight-filled route through Brainerd, this city of 13,600 residents has struggled to lure people and businesses back.
“We pretty much lost the tourism industry in our city,” Brainerd City Planner Mark Ostgarden said. “We’ve got that great brand, you know. We want people to come to Brainerd.”
The wide and speedy bypass, lined with big-box stores, chain restaurants and hotels, is easy to blame for diverting weekend traffic from downtown Brainerd.
But some civic leaders contend existing businesses in Brainerd haven’t done enough to market themselves and keep up with the times.
Critics, meanwhile, say city leaders should worry less about vacationers and national chains and focus more on providing residents better trails, parks and sidewalks.
“If you just make the neighborhood a little bit nicer, more people will want to live there, more people will want to invest. The property values will go up. You will get your money back,” said Charles Marohn, a former area municipal engineer who started a nonprofit called Strong Towns and is moving his family to Brainerd this summer. “It’s very frustrating. It’s a beautiful city. It doesn’t need to be this way.”
‘Business 371’

Brainerd has lost more than just tourist traffic.
When national retailers inquire about moving to the area, Ostgarden said, they want space near the bypass. Costco, Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney have staked out spots along the highway in recent years.
“We have been trying to develop a plan to address the changing traffic patterns and how we’re going to remain the important city that we are in the region,” Ostgarden said.
A drive on Brainerd’s main thoroughfare, South Sixth Street, also known as “Business 371,” is a stark contrast to the gleaming bustle of the bypass.
Among the first sights is an empty old hotel with a pool and restaurant, weeds growing on its tennis courts. Not far away sits a used-car lot. Nearby, a cement-block yard.
Average daily traffic on that road fell from a high of 19,000 vehicles in 2000 to a high of 11,600 in 2013, a nearly 40 percent decline. Meanwhile, nearly 20,400 vehicles a day, on average, took the bypass in 2013.
The Brainerd Housing and Redevelopment Authority is trying to figure out how to lure people back to visit and live. Executive Director Jennifer Bergman says it’s a matter of making downtown more attractive, more of a destination.
Nisswa, about 15 miles up the road, draws people with trendy shops, she pointed out. Streets there teemed with families watching turtle races and vacationers browsing for gifts, clothes and trinkets on a recent afternoon. Fifteen miles in a different direction, the town of Crosby draws visitors by promoting antiques.
While empty storefronts are abundant in downtown Brainerd, some businesses are humming along: a jewelry store, a couple of restaurants, a few bars. Visitors also will find a chocolate shop, a few antique stores and gift shops.
Bergman said downtown already has a lot of great businesses. “I could go on and on about the stores (in Brainerd), but nobody knows about them,” she said.
The Housing and Redevelopment Authority’s top priority is redevelopment, she said. The city recently won a $715,000 community development grant from the state to improve downtown business facades and refurbish about 17 rental apartments.
Improving the look of downtown, including installing brick sidewalks and redoing landscaping, has helped, but beyond that it’s “marketing, marketing, marketing,” Bergman said.
City leaders also are exploring plans to redevelop Brainerd’s Mississippi Riverfront, Ostgarden said.
Mayor Ed Menk, who has owned E.L. Menk Jewelers for 37 years, doesn’t blame the bypass for downtown’s decline. Taking the heavy traffic off the local streets made it easier for people to reach his store, he said. Brainerd’s downtown is struggling like any other town its size, he added, as consumers take their business to big-box stores.
Wal-Mart, Target and Mills Fleet Farm set up shop in Baxter before the bypass came, Menk pointed out, saying he believes that’s where the big commercial businesses would have gone anyway because they needed vast open land.
Now, he says, it’s partly up to Brainerd business owners to better market themselves.

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