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Common Currency: Park Rapids continues on path of success

Alan Zemek

The data is in and the data is looking good. Park Rapids is growing stronger than ever.

A little more than six months ago, under the headline "Park Rapids: The Mouse That Roars!" the Enterprise published a column in which I described in anecdotal terms a small, hard scrabble city working hard not just to sustain itself, but even thrive as a growing commercial center with expanding regional influence, particularly in the arts, cultural amenities, and a highly sought after quality of life.

Now we've got the numbers to prove it.

Six months ago the Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission retained the firm of RDG Planning & Design to take a look at the economic landscape in Park Rapids, evaluate the potential for the former National Guard Armory to develop into a regional event center for arts, culture and education, and update the downtown revitalization study area defined in the 2007 comprehensive study, also prepared by RDG.

The results of this new study are absolutely amazing.

Here are just a few of the many accomplishments our city has seen in the five years since the last comprehensive study: An expanded regional hospital, a new Walmart store that actually increased local business, a brand new J&B grocery store in downtown, a larger and more successful Ace Hardware store, a completely revitalized Main Avenue with better regional transportation links and improved state highways that don't bypass our retail and commercial centers, and a balanced city budget with a rock solid credit rating.

And it is all in the numbers. Retail sales in Park Rapids now exceed $145 million annually, almost double from five years ago.

There is more: The City of Park Rapids has successfully secured state and federal grants to rebuild the Red Bridge trail crossing and a new trail head at Red Bridge Park, and is studying the most cost effective way to connect Heartland Trail to downtown.

Pioneer Park is also getting a makeover, and the city is conducting a comprehensive well-head protection plan for its water sources. And did I mention the city has a balanced budget and a rock solid credit rating?

There is more: Plans for the "Wreck" represent the most practicable business model for a viable youth recreation and activity center we have ever seen in our community.

And along with hosting the Governor's Fishing Opener in 2013, Park Rapids will be getting a brand new kidney dialysis center, which will create new professional jobs and enhance our growing reputation as a quality-of-life destination for tourists, seasonal residents, retirees, and young families alike.

And about that old National Guard Armory building....

For the first time in 20 years since it closed in 1992, the lights will be on and the doors will be open at the Armory Auditorium on Sept. 22 for a one-time-only special event.

On this evening Northern Light Opera Company will perform a concert version of the 1931 Gershwin musical "Of Thee I Sing," a lampoon of American politics that tells the story of a presidential candidate who gets in political hot water because he falls in love with the wrong girl.

In the interest of full disclosure, this event will be a "demonstration" concert before a limited audience. The venue will be rough and the acoustics dubious, but it represents a real step towards a greater vision of what the armory auditorium can become. And, just to clarify the point, it didn't cost $3.9 million and the city's taxpayers didn't pay for it.

As a small, rural city, Park Rapids still has its challenges, including a property tax burden that falls heavier on businesses and home owners than it should, considering the level of public services we have to provide to areas outside the city's limits.

But it is well documented this has more to do with the state Legislature that balanced its budget by cutting off aid to local governments, than by the decisions of the city council, which have been smart, prudent, and balanced, in rebuilding long neglected essential infrastructure just to keep the sewers working.

But overall, I think we have plenty to sing about. A limited number of tickets for "Of Thee I Sing" are available at Beagle Books in downtown Park Rapids. For a copy of the complete economic report prepared by RDG Planning & Design, contact HCREDC at 732-2256.

Did I mention the city has a balanced budget and a rock solid credit rating?

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.genera