BRAINERD, MINN. – 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 Hwy. 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.”
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,” said Ostgarden.
A drive on Brainerd’s main thoroughfare, S. 6th 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 will also 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 are also exploring plans to redevelop Brainerd’s Mississippi Riverfront, Ostgarden said.
Devoid of magic
Marohn, who has made a new career of denouncing the types of fast and wide roads he once designed, said Brainerd leaders could tackle small projects while they wait to find money for more grand plans.
Simple, inexpensive improvements such as planting shade trees in parks and painting road lanes to make it easier to bike and walk across streets will increase property values and lift the town economically, he argues.
On a website he created to urge city leaders to decrease speed and lane width on S. 6th Street — the road once inundated with summer tourist traffic — Marohn features a photograph taken over the July 4th weekend in 2014. It’s the busiest time of year in the Brainerd Lakes Area, he said, but on that Saturday — July 5 — the street was empty, devoid of the magic felt there the day before, when residents and visitors had a reason to gather on sidewalks for parades and fireworks.
“For one day every year, this city is magical,” Marohn said. In all the neighborhoods, it “feels comfortable out walking. … It’s what a successful city is all the time.”
A place and a name
While local residents are painfully aware of what Brainerd is missing, tourists often don’t have a clue.
Ostgarden said he overheard someone on a telephone at a Baxter gas station say, “We’re in Brainerd. We’ll be there in 20 minutes.”
Even the local chamber of commerce uses the city’s name, though it represents businesses across the region.
“People tend to, when they think of Brainerd, … conjure images of Nisswa or Pequot Lakes or Crosslake,” said Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kilian. “Our task is to get people to, when they talk about the Brainerd Lakes Area, to really think of Brainerd.”
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.
Mark Lelwica is optimistic about business in the city. This spring, he and some business partners decided to invest in Brainerd, opening Roundhouse Brewery in an old rail yard — part of a large complex where workers once repaired rail cars on the town’s east side.
With brick walls, beamed ceilings, corrugated metal and reclaimed wood, the space offered spectacular atmosphere, Lelwica said. But it’s not a place most out-of-town tourists would happen upon.
“We wanted this to be a brewery for Brainerd,” he said. “From a market standpoint, there was a void here.” Still, he and others hope word about the brewery will get around and travelers will seek it out.
Chamber president Kilian and others say they hope the old rail yard, the Northern Pacific Center, draws people.
“I think the community is searching for a spark,” Kilian said. “An opportunity.”