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COMMON CURRENCY: City should reflect on its heritage in viewing future

Alan Zemek

The 1885 village of Park Rapids is described in an early history attributed to Clif Miller as "a place on the edge of the wilderness frontier...where the grass of the sunlit prairie meets the dark boreal pine forest".... lying "on the banks of a shimmering rapids in a stand of park like trees, and so they named it Park Rapids."

Most certainly, there is an enduring and enchanting quality to the village of Park Rapids that has captured the imagination of visitors and settlers for generations, me included. But somehow, despite Miller's romantic and idyllic description of the environs of Park Rapids, I think the reality of 1881, when Frank and Gilbert Rice came to town, was more probably along the line of "Hey- this looks like a good spot for a lumber mill!"

But even before the Rice brothers came to town, C.O. "Charles" Todd had already laid out the original town site of Park Rapids in 1879, imagining 16 city blocks with five streets running south from first to fifth, and four wide avenues with names such as Park, Main, Pleasant and Court.

Now here is an audacious guy! He wanders 50 miles into the wilderness from the last place with something resembling a road, builds a solitary log shanty and calls it a town.

And yet, within three years, Captain John S. Huntsinger, a veteran of the Civil War, would leave his job as a bank clerk in Greenfield, Iowa to venture into the northland, and open Park Rapids' first hotel.

And by 1882 the Rice lumber mill attracted enough settlers that the opening class at the new Park Rapids School already had 30 pupils. Doc Cutler came along shortly thereafter, opened a pharmacy, and took payment in the form of lumber, bags of flour, beans and whatever the loggers and traders that trekked in from the wilderness had in their possession.

It would take 10 more years before the railroad arrived in 1891, vastly increasing the economic potential of the town, which was also, curiously, the same year that the state Legislature created Itasca State Park to preserve what was left of the forests surrounding the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

One hundred and twenty five years later, we still are what we were. Park Rapids is still essentially a small community of independent entrepreneurs, still driven by optimism, vision and hope, but also tempered by the realities imposed by a sometimes harsh and unforgiving natural and economic environment.

There is one thing that is different though: the size of the trade area. In the early 20th century southbound trains leaving from Park Rapids were filled with freight and lumber to build Minnesota's new metropolitan cities, and the return trip northbound brought tourists and vacationers, it being fashionable for the citified Victorian women of the day to roll up the sleeves of their dresses and remove their hats so as to get sunburned to prove they had the means to go "rusticating" in the wilderness.

Park Rapids' early settlers waited 10 years with great anticipation for the railroad to come, convinced that prosperity and progress would follow. And after a decade of waiting and hoping, in 1891 prosperity and progress did follow.

Today, we seem to be waiting for a new railroad, something to come along and restore prosperity, something to create new vital links to a larger regional economy. When the hey-day of the great railroad era died out, many small communities died with it, their one vital sustaining link to a larger economy gone forever.

Fortunately, Park Rapids will not share that fate because the next great railroad has already arrived. But we are just now beginning to figure out how to get on it. And the Park Rapids trade area won't be to the extent of the length of an iron rail. It will flow to the extent of our imagination.

I believe the next great economic struggle for this region is going to be a battle to create the best quality of place. In economics, comparative advantage is the high ground. You have to do something better than the other guy to survive. It is how you attract customers, capital and investors to your venture.

But in today's world doing something better often means just doing it cheaper, and this is not often possible, and is especially difficult for the small business owner who lacks the leverage to compete on price alone.

The best answer I think is not only to try to do something better, but also to try to be something better. I think the answer is to be the Park Rapids that Miller wrote about, the city "on the edge of the sunlit prairie, where the grass meets the dark boreal forest, laying next to the shimmering rapids in a stand of park like pines," a place where visionaries and adventurers, settlers, and vacationers alike all say "Hey- this looks like a good place for me!"

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