A Unifying Message

On Tuesday October 29th at about 5:00 p.m. Chuck Marohn and Jim Kumon of StrongTowns.org arrived in White Bear Lake. I greeted them at the door shortly after they pulled up outside Ingredients for an early dinner before Chuck’s presentation beginning at 6:30.  Seated at the table were five of us, including White Bear Lake Mayor Jo Emerson and local bike businessman Jim Muellner. There was no need for an ice-breaker. Chuck and Jim Kumon eased through hellos, and like doctors seeing a patient, assumed an even tone and asked how it was going. And like the dining patients we were, we ate salads and in between bites added and extended to each others comments piecing together a face to the malaise. The gentle frankness of that conversation set the tone for the rest of the night and Strong Towns’ matter-of-fact message favored no one, while pulling everyone in the room together.

Using history as his backdrop, Chuck methodically described the evolution of infrastructure. His juxtaposed pictures of his hometown of Brainerd MN  as it formed and evolved. These were relevant to his story and personalized his message. He showed what thousands of years of civilizations building cities looked like and why. He talked about the post WWII experiment we are currently engaged in and why it is failing. For example, he gave an example of salvage value. He showed a Walmart and told all in attendance that Walmart structures their real estate deals for roughly 15 years. At the end of the cycle, the building is paid for and they can take advantage of changes in the town or the market. They may move out of town completely or just a block away and when they do they take everything with them. Shelves, signs, cash registers, lighting…everything… leaving a box behind. This is an example of high salvage value.  But when a bridge needs to be replaced, there is the cost to tear the bridge down and erect a new one. The rebar and cement has little value. This is low salvage value .

His expansion of this,  that infrastructure costs never really get paid but carry-forward like a Ponzi Scheme, gave a silent audience something everyone could clearly see. That miles of roads and bridges whose cost and repair cycles  exceed their financing plan and whose economic return is in the red and point to the failed business model we continue to fund. The States became addicted to Federal money to continue the experiment.  This faucet has virtually been welded shut.  With in-State monies receding like our spring-fed lake , it is the communities that are being asked to foot the bill.

We are now 2 hours into the Curbside Chat. Some, with positions that can influence change, and began the night with us, have had to leave for whatever reason and missed the meat and potatoes.  But three Council Members and the Mayor and several members of her planning staff sitting close to the front row have been writing notes and were here for the duration.  We were in the home stretch as we looked at a slide of a very wide, multi-lane road. Chuck pointed to the screen and said this is a “stroad”. It wants to be a street, but it is a road. It separates one side from the other and begs someone to use their car just to cross it. The room was very quiet as cars were whizzing by outside City Hall on U.S. 61.  Chuck deftly switched to a few slides of Memphis who is runner-up to Detroit for most likely to be used same day as shooting for an apocalyptic movie set. He showed ordinary citizens with cans of white paint creating bike lanes and defining parking places in a neighborhood that the city had forgot. When the city found out, they decided to leave it in place, clean it up a bit and see what happened. Happy ending….storefronts got cleaned up and more businesses moved in. Moral of the story…those cans of pain were a great investment. They addressed the needs of the local community and provided a solid return. This is the Strongtowns message. We need to change the model and how we fund it and use money and infrastructure to do more than what they have yielded us in the 50-year experiment. Wipe the road clean. Look at the economic and human issues then return to the road to design it for its original purpose, and leverage it where possible to solve the identified community issues.

It was a MNDOT engineer, who enthusiastically wrote to me later, who summed up the night best. He said, ” It’s truly amazing the effect public infrastructure can make in a community.” Bravo.



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