For the community activists packed into the Northern Pacific Center’s Luminary Fern, Monday’s River to Rail event served as a moment to regroup and refocus.
Disappointed after Brainerd’s failure to reach the final five in the Small Business Revolution-Main Street contest, still hurting after years of economic downturn as members of the community may be—Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kilian said it was high time to revitalize the city and pointed to the audience of 250 as a well of resources in which to do it.

“I have just one message for everyone and that’s this: Our time is now. Is everybody with me on that?” Kilian said. “Look around. How many times do we have 250 people gathered to talk about the future of the community? To talk about a brighter future for Brainerd, Minnesota?”

Mayor Ed Menk echoed this sentiment, looking back at nearly a half-century of business in Brainerd’s downtown. He used that breadth of perspective as a lens to peek into a future of possibilities.

“I’ve worked in downtown Brainerd, come May, 44 years. During that time, I’ve seen a lot of changes—most of them weren’t so good,” Menk said. “Right now, we’re on the cusp of some fantastic things happening. We’ve got new restaurants, we’ve got new retailers, we’ve all sorts of fun stuff.”

The River to Rail initiative, started in 2017, represents the combined efforts and joint projects toward strategic projects and investments for the economic future of Brainerd.

The event served as an update of ongoing activities to revitalize the city—founding economic cornerstone to founding cornerstone, from the Mississippi River to the old Northern Pacific railway. It was a gathering of 15 organizations, featuring an assortment of nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses alongside housing authorities and arts councils, as well as local government bodies and public education officials.

Participating entities that gave short presentations Monday evening include the Mississippi Riverfront Committee, the Northern Pacific Center, The Crossing Arts Alliance, the Brainerd Jaycees, Brainerd Community Action, the Brainerd History Week Commission, the Downtown Creative Placemaking Initiative, Brainerd Lakes Area Conservation Collaborative, the Brainerd School District, the city of Brainerd, Close-Converse Commercial Properties, the Brainerd Housing and Redevelopment Authority, Sage on Laurel and Brainerd Restoration.

Bruce Buxton, a past board president of the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp. and the man spearheading the River to Rails initiative, said he was encouraged by the wide and diverse range of organizations and individuals participating and collaborating in their efforts to revitalize the city.

During Monday’s event, he identified a number of strengths and weaknesses community activists should keep in mind going forward. While Brainerd has a solid brand and name recognition across the globe, he said, it’s image is often defined by high poverty and high unemployment, as well as a poor downtown rental scene—though, he noted, this is largely the result of inaccurate media representation and misinterpreted statistics.

Buxton identified the creation of market-rate housing as an important step going forward, whether that’s to address the needs of young people looking for employment or Brainerd’s aging retirement population. The Brainerd School District—an entity serving 6,500 students and employing roughly 900 people—represented a crucial piece of the area economy, Buxton said. He added the construction of hotels, a performing arts center and a children’s museum posed as a viable area of improvement to the city’s recreation offerings.

The end goal, whatever path the city takes, should be to foster enhanced opportunities, better incomes and improved property values, Buxton said.

“If we have the mindset that we can’t do something, then we’ll achieve nothing. On the other hand, if we have the mindset that we can do something, we will have everything we desire,” he said. “We will have problems as we go down this path. We have to maintain a positive mindset to work long term together.”

In the final third of the event, attendees convened at their tables and submitted suggestions to questions posed to them by organizers.

• Question 1: What are some of Brainerd’s greats assets that we could build on?

• Question 2: In order to be successful, what barriers do we have to overcome?

• Question 3: Do you have any new ideas that could greatly impact the river to rail area?

One member of the audience said, before these questions can be truly answered, the city has to establish a stronger and more distinct sense of self and what it wants to accomplish.

“We have so many assets in Brainerd, but I think we’ve got an identity issue—what is Brainerd? Is it a political entity that’s a city, is it Brainerd-Baxter, is it the Brainerd lakes area, does it include Crosslake?” the man said. “We’ve got to get beyond that. We’ve got such a great name and well-known, well-recognized name and we’ve got to leverage that.”

City Administrator Cassandra Torstenson said her group contemplated ways to galvanize younger members of the community to take part in the downtown scene, which included encouraging businesses to be open from 6-10 p.m.

“Those are our future workers,” she said, “and what they like is the vibrancy, the walkability and what they can do in the evenings after work.”

Other suggestions included greater trail/river access and expansion, transportation for aging faith-based groups, a women’s rowing team for Central Lakes College, initiatives for increased shopper/tourist retention, as well as the promotion of novelty and niche businesses to take advantage of Brainerd’s storied history.