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Common Currency: Infrastructure 'new imperative' to Park Rapids' future

Alan Zemek

"Ben, I have one word for you: Plastics!"

This particular scene from the 1967 movie classic, "The Graduate," in which Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock gets some friendly career advice about the possibility of a bright future in the petrochemicals industry, helps define the context of the story for the audience in first few minutes of the film. It very neatly captures the angst of mid 1960s youth searching for a higher purpose in an obsessively materialistic society in a concise, one word sentence.

(Without waxing too nostalgic about "the good old days," how nice would it be to again have the luxury of being young and self absorbed in an era of go-go economic growth; to have only the burden of choosing among any of a number of promising career options? I can only hope the children of us baby boomers should suffer such a dilemma.)

But, we must change and adapt as the times change, and so for today, I have one word for you: "Infrastructure!" It seems appropriate. Park Rapids is in the third year of what could be a five, six, or even seven year rebuilding program, installing new wells, replacing worn out sewers, streets and water mains, in some cases long overdue and just one step ahead of catastrophic collapse, the creaky old pipes literally bursting at the seams.

So, while we will be laying pipe and pouring concrete for the next few years to replace obsolete infrastructure, in the most traditional sense of the word, just to keep up with the needs of maintaining Park Rapids' basic city functions, I think it is also important to consider what comes after, and begin to think of our "infrastructure" in a whole new context.

Traditionally, infrastructure has always been a great economic multiplier. In 1825 when the Erie Canal opened, shipping costs along the 360 mile route from Lake Erie to New York City dropped by over 90 percent and New York City became one of the greatest port cities in the world. As soon as railroads reached Chicago in the mid 19th century, fresh beef was shipped east and fresh oysters were shipped west, chilled in both directions in specially iced box cars. New markets for western beef and eastern seafood blossomed over night.

But what happens if improvements to infrastructure don't create a positive economic multiplier? Let's take a specific example: One of MNDOT's major regional and state transportation objectives for highway improvements is to increase average traffic speeds on state highways that pass through small towns.

This means that every time MNDOT builds a bypass, another small community becomes a drive-by town. It is just too easy and convenient to keep right on going, which in terms of economic efficiency is a good thing, unless it is your corner gas station, convenience store, or small cafe that just got bypassed. So what happens if you build it and they don't come?

This is where I think the word "infrastructure" is ready for a new context. It is the new imperative of leveraging Park Rapids as a destination place for tourism, arts, recreation, and regional shopping and dining. Here is just a sample of some of Park Rapids' "infrastructure" in this new context: Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission, Park Rapids Lakes Area Arts Council, City Lodging Association, City of Park Rapids Economic Development Authority, Industries for Park Rapids, Progress Park Rapids, Park Rapids Downtown Business Association, and this doesn't include other groups dedicated to trails, parks, libraries, athletics, and any of several service organizations, such as Rotary, the Lions Club, etc.

Interestingly, of all of these organizations, I believe the City Lodging Association is the only one that actually collects a visitor's tax for the purpose of promoting Park Rapids as a tourism destination. And in this economy, the CLA should be spending every single penny they collect. We should all be doing more of that. (And without naming particular candidates for representative office, I would just like to say it is easy to speak out against a local option sales tax when you live in Bemidji and your city already has one.)

In the meantime, what if we could create an economic multiplier out of all of these hard working and committed groups of people? Actually, we can, and the perfect opportunity to do it is right in front of us: The 2012 Governor's Fishing Opener.

This annual Minnesota tradition is one of the biggest media stories of the year. I have heard estimates that somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 reporters, tourism writers, radio and TV personalities, and other media folk, descend upon the host community for the weekend of the opener, and easily generate over $600,000 worth of publicity.

For Park Rapids, this could be the closest thing to being chosen to host the Olympics. It is a big deal, and if a winning bid is in the offing, it will take a whole new "infrastructure" to pull it off. It will involve hotels, resorts, and retail businesses of all kinds, and lots of volunteers, city and county resources; and the participation of virtually every single organization I listed above.

And what if this new "infrastructure" became a permanent community asset? What if we could create an economic multiplier for Park Rapids out of our own talent and ability to cooperate, coordinate, and organize? What if hosting major regional and state events that are a big deal were no big deal at all, but just business as usual in Park Rapids?

I have one word for you: "infrastructure!"

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