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COMMON CURRENCY" City's economy needs a 'Center of Community'

The old stage inside the Park Rapids Armory building is one of several features that has brought back memories for many in the area. Local developer Alan Zemek has spent two years working on the historic building, getting it ready for possible redevelopment. (Anna Erickson / Enterprise)

"What is your vision for the armory?"

I have been asked that question quite frequently since "Inside the armory" appeared in this newspaper as last week's headline story. The other question I have been frequently asked is "Have you finished the business plan yet?"

The answers to these questions are, it is still a work in progress, and, it is still a work in progress.

You would think after two years of planning and research I would know what I was doing and where I was going, but I have learned a few things over the years when doing this type of rehab project:

1) What you thought you were seeing sometimes isn't there.

2) Defining the vision too early can result in tunnel vision that overlooks surprising and unexpected opportunities.

3) Never let the business plan get in the way of good planning. And in the case of the armory, I have relearned all three of these lessons.

And while I still don't know exactly what the armory will become, I do know for sure what it will not become. The armory will not become a community center, and since the article last week's paper generated so much interest, I would like to explain why.

A couple years ago the city hired a consultant, who happened to be a professional architect, to prepare a feasibility study on the potential to develop a community center for the Park Rapids area.

After lots of meetings and community input, the consultant dutifully crafted an extensive wish list of facilities and programs for a new community center into a much anticipated final report.

I attended the meeting when the final report was presented to the many people that had worked hard on it and supported the idea enthusiastically. It was a worthy effort. The result? Stunned silence.

The plan for the new Park Rapids Community Center called for a 55,000 square foot facility with an $11 million price tag.

And this is exactly why Park Rapids should not build a community center. At a price tag like that, it is something we don't need and can't afford.

There are plenty of communities that have built these white elephants, and they are based on an obsolete model that just does not work, in my opinion.

Most of them bleed money and they almost always become a burden to the taxpayers that requires a permanent annual subsidy to keep them open.

In defense of all those who worked on the idea, I was a supporter too. Which is why, of course, I attended the meeting.

After listening with somewhat dumbfounded disbelief to the consultant describe what certainly would have been a fine edifice, I was reminded of the adage "If the only tool in your tool box is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail."

And this is when it dawned on me that the consultant was an architect, and was quite reasonably focused entirely on the building itself, because that is what architect's do. They design buildings.

This was the source of my inspiration for the armory project. This is when it occurred to me that Park Rapids does not need a community center.

What Park Rapids needs is a "Center of Community." A community center is just a building. It is just bricks and mortar, cold steel and glass. It is expensive to build and expensive to operate. But it is not the building that is important; the potential is much, much greater. It is the potential to leverage a diverse base of community resources by developing an interconnected network of relationships into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This is what I mean by "Center of Community."

Okay, before you conclude I have been drinking the "New Age" Kool-Aid and have gone completely all touchy-feely, there are actually some hard facts and a sound economic theory behind it. Here are some facts about the Park Rapids economy:

n 81percent of all businesses in Park Rapids employ 10 persons, or less.

n About 60 percent of all businesses employ four persons, or less.

n Only about half of the housing in Park Rapids is owner occupied, and the median household income is about half the average for the State of Minnesota. And interestingly, 41 percent of all retail sales within a 20 mile radius take place within the city limits of Park Rapids.

The city is a net "importer" of retail sales activity, which is reflected in the employment base. The top three industries in Park Rapids by numbers of employment are 1) retail trade 2) construction and 3) hospitality.

These statistics predate the housing crash, so I suspect that construction employment is way down the list now, and the employment base is even more skewed towards retail and hospitality employment.

In summary, Park Rapids is a community of small retail and service oriented businesses with very little individual economic leverage.

And, these businesses are all vulnerable to a downturn in visitor traffic to Park Rapids from outside the local trade area, because there are more of these establishments in Park Rapids than the local economy can sustain by itself.

Bottom line: Park Rapids is a tourist town, and we are suffering from a lack of tourists. These statistics, and this lack of economic leverage, tell exactly why Park Rapids must have a local option sales tax oriented to tourism development, but that is a subject for another column.

Getting back to business, this is why a "Center of Community" that creates a center of gravity for economic activity in Park Rapids is so important.

The answer is not going to be found in high priced consultants from out of town telling us what we already know.

It is going to come from the strength of the many, from which orbits a vitality and a vibrancy that emanates out and enriches the community far beyond the four walls of any building.

It will be a place where art, education, music, and commerce can all intersect.

Because one more thing I have learned over the years: art and commerce need each other, and both do better when they are interconnected.

And as a tourism based economy that depends on its "brand" image to continue to attract visitors to our local businesses and attractions, I think it is even more true for Park Rapids.

So, that is my vision for the armory, that is become a "Center of Community." There are many challenges ahead, but I think it is achievable, viable and most certainly possible at way, way less than $11 million of public money.

Alan J. 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