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Common Currency: DNR, city should work to preserve history

Alan Zemek

Every city that thrives, no matter how big or small, faces the challenge of reinventing itself for a new generation. Some will embrace change and some will brace against it, and out of that gravitational tug and centripetal pull the character of a community is sculpted; respected or neglected; honored or discarded; preserved or cast away; and then is born again.

A city that thrives depends as much upon the courage for adaptation as it does the passage of time and changes in underlying economic conditions. This is particularly so for a city upon a river, for a city's relationship with its water is a reflection of its character.

Some cities wall off their rivers, converting them into little more than drainage canals. Some cities choose no walls at all, yielding parts of their city to the inevitable flood that will come, rather than give up cherished vistas and the connectivity of neighborhoods. Some cities have even engineered their river to flow backwards. (And in observance of some strange ritual, douse it once a year with green dye!)

A city's relationship with its water is also reflected in its bridges, and here in Park Rapids, our relationship with the Fish Hook River is for many people especially intimate and personal. Both the Red Bridge and the old railroad trestle have outlived their useful life as a means of conveyance over the water. The footings are caving in, the pilings rotten to the core, the carrying capacity so compromised the bridge can barely hold up the weight of its own structure. As bridges go, they are incurably obsolete. Both are beyond hope for any meaningful extension in their purposeful life as useful structures.

But both these bridges have meaning and purpose beyond their functional use. Both these bridges have for many years allowed an intimate and personal experience with a small river that is not much remarkable in any way other than it is our river, and reflects our memories, our families, and our sense of Park Rapids as a special place. Their purpose now is more iconic than their utility, their value more emotional than objective. In spite of their dereliction as bridges go, this is just as valid a purpose and this should be respected.

Today the Department of Natural Resources will hold an open house meeting at the Hubbard County Court House at 5:30 p.m. to present their plans for a new steel bridge to replace the current Red Bridge and extend the Heartland Trail across the Fish Hook River, and then eventually westward towards Detroit Lakes and beyond.

I am in favor of the new river crossing and the opportunity to connect Park Rapids to an extended regional trail system. The bridges are beyond repair and need to be replaced. And the city should not have to bear that financial burden when so much of our public infrastructure already serves greater regional needs beyond the limits of the city's tax base. So, for that reason I welcome the change for a new generation.

But here is something to consider. The new bridge will be three times longer and more than twice as wide as the current red bridge, It will be a generic design for its function and it will reflect an engineer's sense of economy and utility. It will also fundamentally change the character of our relationship with the parks and the Fish Hook River. Each generation will experience our community in its own way, so I can't say if the change will be better or worse, but I can say it will be different than it is now.

As a developer, much of my work in years past has been subject to review by the DNR for preservation of habitat and mitigation of development impacts on the surrounding area. I welcomed this advice and often sought it out even when it wasn't legally required because much of the value of property in our area is in relation to the quality of its environment. It was a good business practice.

Now, we should ask the DNR to do the same for us, and consider mitigating the impact of the new river crossing. The DNR should work with the City and the Parks Board to remove the old bridges and create some historic marker or monument for them as part of the trail crossing project. An overlook to mark the last visible memory of the Great Northern Railway, and relocating the red bridge to the park for a place for picture taking, holding a wedding, or honoring our veterans on memorial day as we do now, would add very little to the cost of the project and it would help build a little goodwill for the DNR. It's their bridge, but these parks are our habitat. And it would be a good business decision for the DNR.

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