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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Westbrook and Minnesota's Indefinite Prosperity Detour

June 25, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
It's summer. The urgency for doing anything beyond keeping the lawn mowed, planning a cookout, and getting kids to ball practice has passed. Except, in Westbrook where the City Council faces a $2.5 million dollar street reconstruction bill. Their summer is decidedly unrelaxed.

Earlier this week, my colleague, Minnesota 2020 Transportation Fellow Conrad deFiebre, wrote "Finding $2.5 million in a $500,000 Budget." He examines, in some detail, Westbrook's plan to rebuild city streets last reconstructed in 1983. Westbrook has everything it needs -professional consultants, engineers, a competitive bidding process, community agreement that it's time to rebuild the streets- everything, that is, but the money.

I won't retread Conrad's article. It's smart, cogent, thoughtful and worth your reading time. No, I'm interested in an entirely different question. What happens if Westbrook can't afford its street project? By extension, it's a question facing many of Minnesota's small towns; this challenge puts Minnesota's future prosperity squarely in the crosshairs.

Westbrook is eight miles from my family's farm but growing up in Walnut Grove, we only traveled to Westbrook to lose basketball games. Or, we passed through Westbrook heading to Windom, Cottonwood County's seat of government. Westbrook offers residents the same thing that most small towns possess: an unyieldingly strong sense of community.

Identity, however, doesn't counter demographic change. Kids grow up and move away. Fewer stay, making population replenishment a genuine challenge. Almost 60 percent of Westbrook's population is older than 45. The median age is 52.

Westbrook is no longer the agricultural service hub it once was but then neither is Walnut Grove, Tracy, Milroy, Lucan, Wabasso, Lamberton and Comfrey. Westbrook residents travel south for work to Windom and Worthington just as Walnut Grove folks drive to Marshall or Redwood Falls. Westbrook's economic base isn't growing, making street reconstruction a very hard choice.

If you live in a small town or grew up in one the size of Westbrook, you understand that your town is a small town. You see, very clearly, that Windom is a bigger town and Worthington is a city. You also comprehend Westbrook's future. It's just down the road in Storden.

For Twin Cities' residents, there is no difference between Westbrook and Storden. Westbrook is two and a half times larger but the jump from 274 to 755 doesn't mean much in a city of 400,000. In Westbrook, that difference is everything.

Streets communicate prosperity in the same way that freshly painted houses assert self-confidence. Streets reflect our desire for order and efficiency, expressing purpose and longevity. A city with good streets is a city with a future. If Westbrook doesn't rebuild its streets, limping along with an increasingly expensive patching strategy, is it a town with a future?

Minnesota writer Sinclair Lewis perfectly nailed this anxiety years ago. That sentiment, the desire to be recognized as accomplished, to be something somehow more than what it is, is a reoccurring theme in Lewis' books. He observed it in Minnesota's towns but he also found it in himself.

Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, in 1885. He didn't like it and couldn't wait to get out, believing that he had much to offer the world and that Sauk Centre didn't care a whit. He went to Yale University, ready to assume his place in an imagined cultural firmament. His classmates, for the most part though, thought Lewis was a Midwestern hick.

While he isn't read much anymore, in his day, Lewis was a well-known, well-regarded writer. He satirized Midwestern social ambition in Main Street, Babbitt and others. Beneath this mockery, lays ambition's opposite: fear of failure. For every Gopher Prairie striving to be Zenith, we find the real world counterparts of Sauk Centre pining to become St Cloud and the anxiety that, like boom towns, the community might fall back or disappear.

Westbrook isn't going away anytime soon nor is Storden but Minnesota faces a profound public policy choice regarding small towns. How do we replace aging infrastructure? While Minnesota's state public policy leaders, citing cost, may decline to assist Westbrook with street rebuilding, what happens when the wastewater treatment facility begins failing? No infrastructure element -roads, bridges, sewage treatment plants, courthouses- last forever.

The conservative policy response simply denies the problem, seeing bloated government overreach in every community activity. "No new taxes" policy, shifting service burdens onto local property tax payers, exacerbates Westbrook's problem. They have less revenue to accomplish the community's needs even before generational street replacement reared its head.

Present state public policy regarding small towns is a bipartisan achievement which is to say both parties are equally disconnected from rural Minnesota's problems. Moving Minnesota forward, achieving renewed, progressive prosperity, requires moving rural Minnesota forward. If we don't, we can share Westbrook's quiet anxiety when looking at Storden. South Dakota, right next door with a strongly expressed low taxes/low service government model, stands in stark contrast to Minnesota. If we don't change direction, Minnesota's future will look much like South Dakota's present.


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