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COMMON CURRENCY: Cities should create 'place-based attachment'

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Last week the city council had a couple of tough calls to make. Each could have gone either way, with good arguments on both sides. But for purposes of marking the grade, I would say they got one right answer and one incomplete.

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The grade of incomplete is for the decision to postpone the Riverside Avenue sewer and water project. The vote was three ayes, one nay, and one abstention, to adopt the resolution to move ahead with the project.

Bonding and assessment projects require a four-fifths super-majority, so in a way, the resolution didn't pass, but it didn't fail either. Grade: incomplete.

I am often impressed with how well self-government actually does reflect the consensus of the community it represents, or the lack thereof, whether locally or nationally, and this case is no different.

The yes votes have all the facts on their side. The project area includes replacing a main trunk sewer line that serves almost half the city. Its vitrified clay pipes and brick manholes are 80 years old and failing.

I am not an engineer, but I am pretty sure these are two statements that do not go well together: "200,000 gallons per day" and the words "stagnant flow."

But in many ways, a "no" vote is just as valid. The project area includes replacing sewer and water service laterals, curb, gutter, sidewalks and street resurfacing to several blocks of homes that, in these economic times, would arguably not see much improvement in their property values as a result.

On the other hand, not doing the project won't do much for their market value either, and the market value of a home with a cellar full of raw sewage is zero. Then again, $2 million dollars is a lot of money in a small town.

So, stay tuned. Maybe we'll get a few more years out of the system before it fails or maybe the engineers can come up with a less ambitious plan to replace the most critical components of the trunk line first.

The other tough call was the vote to approve the purchase of a vacant lot to add to the city's parks and the Heartland Trail where it passes closest to down town. This one is actually a much easier call, and there is sound economic theory to support it.

A colleague of mine recently brought to my attention an article by Will Andresen, a researcher for the University of Wisconsin.

In his article, "Soul of the Community," Andresen relates Gallop Poll survey results that demonstrate the vital role that "place-based attachment" plays in the economic success of small towns.

The results are intuitive, but significant none the less: The more emotionally attached residents are to their community, the more likely it is they will stay there and spend their money there. The link between emotional attachment and economic success is compelling.

And most compelling, Andresen's research indicates that a healthy, vibrant, diverse and aesthetically interesting downtown, including its public spaces, green space, built up and natural environment and access to arts, parks and trails is absolutely essential to support the development of "place-based attachment," particularly for attracting and retaining young people.

For older residents and those seeking a more traditional rural lifestyle, than say someone looking for big city night life, the most important factors in making a location decision are scenic beauty, safe streets, a place for family and a sense of community.

So there is a good overlap here too. In both cases, the research points to the crucial role that a vibrant downtown plays as the "Soul of the Community" in creating long lasting emotional attachments that are necessary to sustain economic development.

Here in Park Rapids, we have made a good start on rebuilding the "hardware" of downtown. But restoring the basic functionality of street corners, curb, gutter, sidewalks, concrete, sewer, water and even street lights, trees, park benches and bike racks is just the beginning. These are just the basics.

Rebuilding the "hardware" of downtown should also include creating access to our parks and trails and integrating these resources into the downtown economic community where it is possible. In this context, purchasing that vacant lot is a solid strategic step in the right direction.

But even this is just scratching the surface. The next challenge will be to integrate the "software" that truly creates the "place-based attachment" Andresen writes about.

People don't attach themselves to concrete and steel. They attach themselves to their experiences with other people, and their interactions with their natural environment, culture, music, arts, work and education. It is these social experiences that help create long lasting emotional attachments.

Walkable streets, interesting gathering places, aesthetically pleasing environments and opportunities for diverse social interactions, even through everyday activities such as dining, shopping, or just going to work, is part of what makes a community livable and desirable.

And fundamentally, when it comes to keeping a city healthy and functioning, what happens above the pavement is just as important as what is happening underneath.

Alan Zemek is a Park Rapids area developer and author of "Generation Busted: How America Went Broke in the Age of Prosperity." You can follow his blog, or comment on this article on his website, www.generation busted.com.

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