Hopefully, Main Street initiative resonates locally

It wasn’t one of Gov. Doug Burgum’s highest profile visions for the future of North Dakota when he was running for office, but it might well be one that pays off with big dividends to those who were paying attention and who continue to pay attention.

Plenty of people (including several members of the Minot City Council and administration) have been paying attention this week at the Main Street Summit in Bismarck, which outlined elements of the governor’s Main Street Initiative.

Monday’s keynote speaker, as reported in Minot Daily News, ably captured the essence. Charles Marohn of Brainerd, Minnesota, founder and president of Strong Towns, and a civil engineer and planner, eloquently and using modern and historic examples, explained why building slowly and incrementally from the city’s core rather than spending millions on sprawl can be a more sustainable, resilient style of development that won’t bankrupt cities.

After all, that’s the way cities sprung to life in the first place, Marohn pointed out. At some point then, the quest for growth prompted expensive urban sprawl. Building out is more risky and expensive than building up and in. Consider just the extra infrastructure cost of development on the geographical fringes of a town center. It can make a city look like it’s growing, but at the cost of the more gradual, innovative use of space that comes from Main Street inspired development.

Some question investment in downtown, asserting it will never be the same. That is true. Downtowns are no longer primary shopping destinations the way they used to be. But around the country, virtually every growing, redeveloping city has at its heart a redeveloping urban core. Today the vision of downtown in these successful places is live-work-play. A national survey of such cities leaves no room for doubt. It is a matter of a community’s leadership and residents buying into the future instead of just lamenting the past. Unfortunately, the latter is easier, intellectually lazy and more fitting with the mood of many in the nation.

Consider if government was as flexible as the private industry. Most economists these days assert that the days of the mega-mall, anchored by department stores and chains, all selling mostly things that can be bought online cheaper and delivered to your home tomorrow, are winding down. But rather than complaining about the past, smart development and business interests are looking at alternatives. These days, there is talk of converting malls to feature residential, entertainment, essential services for residents and others, and eclectic shops featuring unique and local merchants. That is certainly preferable to another huge empty commercial space. Imagine if this became the norm. One could come home from work, park in a secure garage, take an elevator to their apartment/townhouse/condo floor. Later, one takes the elevator to the ground floor to go to the gym, join a walking group, meet friends at a coffee house, buy diapers and get a haircut at 9 p.m.

Maybe it will happen, maybe not, but it demonstrates the creative vision of private industry that adapts. Gov. Burgum’s great promise as a candidate was to bring this kind of thinking to the public sector – and this week, he has.

Given our growth in Minot was at least briefly curtailed, perhaps we haven’t faced the exact conditions in which a Main Street approach is appropriate. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of it and consider adopting some of the principles with the expansion we do witness in the next few years, including the exciting development opportunities we have today.

Hopefully, we can at least learn from other places and then simply adapt it to the specifics of our needs.