Posted by: Dan Bergeson | May 30, 2012

They’re Cutting Down Trees

Homeowners need to periodically trim branches on their trees due to age, disease, storm damage, and the like. I’ve done some of that myself on our lonely little acre (we’re surrounded on all four sides by corn and beans) because we have an abundance of trees, some of them quite mature. We’ve lived in the country for 20 years and occasionally I also see our farmer neighbors felling a tree or two, mostly due to disease (Dutch elm disease has been rampant in the recent past) or damage from high winds.

But this spring I’ve seen tree removal on agricultural property happening on a much larger scale and I’m not sure exactly why that would be. The photos I’m posting are all within a mile of my house, but from the seat of my bike I’m seeing it all over the county. My wireless provider did some maintenance for me recently and he acknowledged that he’s observed this phenomenon as well.

I figure it must be one of two things. One might be an attempt to find more tillable soil, but the sizes of the felled areas really aren’t individually that big. Another could be that turning the monster machines they use to plant and harvest without risking damage to their equipment necessitates cutting down trees outside the perimeter of the field.

I’m not sure if either of these reasons are correct, but it’s been a strange activity to watch.

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Posted by: Dan Bergeson | April 5, 2012

Knoxville’s Market Square

Back in March I paid a long overdue visit to my son who’s living in Knoxville, TN. He’s in the roofing business, specializing in storm repair. Knoxville got hit with a mega-hail storm last fall that provided insurance companies and roofing companies with business for many months. He’s wrapping things up, but may still be there for several weeks yet.

We had some excellent food and spent a whole day hiking in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. What a magnificent place that is! I passed through the Smokies on a family vacation when I was about 12, but didn’t get to see much and remember even less. It was wonderful to get reacquainted.

In the heart of Knoxville lies Market Square. It’s got a long history dating back to 1816. In 1854 an open-air market began selling food and local goods to the populace. This pedestrian plaza was established in 1961. Northfield’s Bridge Square is much smaller than this, but could lend itself to the same kind of activity if slightly modified. Besides size, the difference between Knoxville’s Market Square and Northfield’s Bridge Square is that Market Square is designed on the European piazza or plaza concept with no elevated spaces and a brick base. There is also no vehicular traffic allowed.

Bridge Square in Northfield has a raised public space with grass and other perennials in beds. By mid-summer all of these plantings are in ruins because of the heavy and indiscriminate use of the space. All of this traffic is good, but completely incompatible with the way that the square is maintained. Bridge Square’s heavy use argues for a total makeover along the lines of Knoxville’s Market Square.

The focal point of the square is an elevated covered stage on the north (west?) end. I didn’t say “band shell” did I? It’s not really a band shell, but it’s a perfect venue for musical performances with an immense seating capacity. If we got rid of the raised portion of Bridge Square, relocated the Jacobsen fountain and Civil War monument to one end of the square or the other (instead of in the middle), we’d have lots of room to install a stage or band shell on the opposite end. Of course, we’d also have to alter traffic patterns (like vacating Water Street south of 3rd St.), but that’s kid’s stuff, right?

I have no idea if the citizens of Northfield have the stomach for the radical redo of Bridge Square that I’d like to see, but I’m heartened to discover a community that already has already adopted the concept that I’m seeking. It pays to get out in the world once in awhile.

Posted by: Dan Bergeson | November 20, 2011

Manhattan’s High Line City Park

I recently spent four days in New York City, most of it in residential Brooklyn, Park Slope to be exact. It was great seeing family and bonding again with our young granddaughter. On Sunday we went into Manhattan and headed for a new City Park that we’ve read a lot about. Weekend subway maintenance caused us some slight delays, but that’s another topic that I’m sure our hosts could go about on for hours.

The High Line City Park is a converted elevated railroad line that runs up the west side of lower Manhattan from just below 12th St. up to 30th. The el was an active freight line from 1934 to 1980 and then was abandoned and lay dormant for about 20 years. Initially, business interests in the area lobbied to have it demolished so that they could use the land underneath the line for development. Their efforts failed in the face of opposition from those who wanted to re-establish rail service. That goal wasn’t achieved either and it wasn’t until 1999 that the movement began to acquire the property and turn it into a public amenity.

The first section of the park opened in 2009 and the second section was completed earlier this year. It’s a remarkable piece of urban design and has many, many unusual features. It’s the first park that I’ve had to climb a flight of stairs to enter. There’s a horizontal waterfall and over 200 species of hardy plants throughout the length of the park. Some of the rail bed goes right through buildings and most of its route traverses the west side at mid-blocks, not over the avenues, so there are fascinating perspectives of the surrounding architecture. At one intersection an urban theatre was constructed so that park-goers can sit and watch the vehiclular traffic below.

Almost no crime has been committed in the park since its opening, but there have been several lawsuits from citizens who have fallen and broken bones. The walking surfaces  have uneven edges that require care in maneuvering. You need to keep your eyes open! I’ve read that the park has spurred economic development along its length and we observed lots of construction as former warehouses are gentrified into high-end retail.

The park was mobbed during the two hours we spent in it. I don’t know if that was typical or unusual, but I had the sense that it’s a draw for both residents and tourists alike. I highly recommend a visit the next time you’re in the City. In the meantime, take a tour of the album of photos I snapped.

Manhattan’s High Line Park
Posted by: Dan Bergeson | August 8, 2011

Band Shell Envy

How come there isn’t a band shell in Northfield? Two colleges with terrific music programs, a community with musicians of all ages from grade school to retirees,  a thriving arts community on every level and no band shell or outdoor stage. It’s baffling. I’ve written on this topic before and I’ve bent many an ear with the same question and . . . complaint!! Why not one more time?

As I’ve mentioned before, the Finseth Bandshell was on the St. Olaf College campus for  decades and at one time there was a small gazebo in Central Park. But there has never been a permanent structure owned by the City and placed on public land. Many towns in Minnesota and across the country have such legacy amenities. A couple of weeks  ago I visited Lake City, MN on the shores of Lake Pepin and found a band stand in Patton Park, a lovely green space in the center of town.

When I was in Ireland recently, I came upon this very thing in Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green. A signboard on the premises indicated that there was at least one weekly use of the facility during the entire summer. One of the reasons that there aren’t more outdoor performances in Northfield during the summer is that few organization have the budget to pay for use of the Northfield Showmobile multiple times. A permanent band stand requires no additional setup or take down! (outside of chairs and music stands, of course!)

So I guess what I’m saying is, can we find the money and the moxie to fund this deficiency in our fair city? Are there enough folks for whom this would make a difference in their quality of life? I would answer both questions with a resounding “Yes!” Now I just have to find them. But before I start, let me show you what you can do if you’ve got the money, the location, the moxie, and then some. I give you Red Wing, Minnesota.

Posted by: Dan Bergeson | July 10, 2011

It’s Enough to Make a Fella Whistle

24 hour news cycle got you down? Always bad news to boot? I hear ya. The state of Missouri ripped up and flooded. The state of Arizona engulfed in flames. E. coli running rampant in Germany. The Northfield EDA and the City Council at loggerheads (and the Minnesota, Iowa and New Jersey legislatures). Even Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann are starting to get combative (with each other!).

Well, I have some good news to report. Successful graduations occurred in the past month for hundreds of high school and college students in our fair city. And several physical changes are occurring that will make some of us happy when we see them or use the facilities that are being constructed.

I was out riding recently and when I got to the south end of the Peggy Prowe Bridge, I noticed a new trail heading off along the Cannon River toward Dundas. I’ve been keenly following the plans for a trail connecting Dundas and Northfield on the east side of the river, but didn’t know that the work had progressed this far. I started off on the crushed rock trail and followed it for nearly a mile until it ended just south of the Northfield Ice Arena. (It’s been paved since I took this photo.) When this gets to Dundas, bikers and walkers will be able cross the river and pick up the Mill Towns Trail on the west side for a return trip to Northfield. A six mile loop end-to-end!

A couple weeks ago I watched with growing anticipation as more and more equipment arrived on the property behind the Crossing of Northfield and power shovels and bobcats started doing surgery on the river bank. I’m not the only one who has been disappointed that when the bottom fell out of the real estate market three years ago, all work on the Crossing project, including landscaping, came to an abrupt halt. Can it be that the current property owners (Highland Bank) are actually going to make the place look better? Here’s what it looked like by the end of the week.

The outdoor track at Carleton’s Laird Stadium is being replaced as I’m writing this and the football field has already been resodded. On the north side of the West Gym the practice fields which were totally submerged last fall have been swept clean of sediment and are now sprouting new blades of grass.

Carleton’s Weitz Center for Creativity is about a month away from occupancy (assuming that the City will allow a waiver to the college to  hire private inspectors as substitutes for the state inspectors who are unavailable due to the government shutdown!) and the bike lanes on Union and Fourth Streets that provide the Mill Towns Trail with a city through-connection have been newly striped after conclusion of the resurfacing project of the past two summers.

And moments ago, the USA Women’s Soccer Team won their quarterfinal match against Brazil in a penalty kick shoot out after 122 minutes of play. Wow.

If I don’t look for the good stuff, I might just crawl in a hole, close my eyes, wait for the storm to blow by, and cross my fingers that I make it through. And that’s no fun.

Posted by: Dan Bergeson | May 31, 2011

River City Books 2002-2009

As a followup to my last post about the life cycle of small businesses, I want to call attention to a project of mine that lasted for seven years in downtown Northfield. The impetus behind the birth of River City Books was a desire to offer a  service to the community and have it be sponsored  by my employer, Carleton College. Independent bookstores  thrived on the streets of Northfield for most of the 20th century, but when Authors, Inc. folded in 2000 or 2001, the string came to an end. At the time, I was the Director of the Carleton College Bookstore, and since the citizens of Northfield were challenged to find our store on the campus, I decided to take the business to them.

We threw open the doors in 2002 and within weeks we knew that we had a winning formula that Northfield booklovers craved. As the years ticked by it was clear that we had increased the local bookbuying purchases by at least 30%. That was keeping dollars in the local economy that would otherwise have been spent online or at the big box stores in the south Metro. Unfortunately, the volume wasn’t enough to sustain the business plan that we required for long-term success.

After seven years of valiant effort by Manager Jon Lee and his staff, it was clear that we weren’t going to break into the for-profit column for many years and it became necessary to stop the blood-letting. It was a sad day for all of us involved in this labor of love to tear down what we had built, but we did what we had to do. I thought it would be fitting to post some memories of those years and highlight the good work of our booksellers. What could we have done if our little town had 40,000 inhabitants instead of 20,000?

Posted by: Dan Bergeson | May 15, 2011

Businesses Come and Businesses Go

Bookstore #7 since 1970

About ten years ago I started paying close attention to life on the street in Downtown Northfield MN. Over that decade, I’ve noticed that business entities ebb and flow like the tide. That is, it’s not uncommon for storefronts to empty and fill with a predictable regularity, often on the order of 5-10 a year.

Periodically, folks see these transitions and use them to challenge the conventional wisdom which says that Downtown Northfield is healthy and strong. Some years it seems as though the district is in decline because the transitions happen in a very narrow window of time and suddenly, 6-8 storefronts go dark simultaneously.  The reality seems to be that life on the street in Downtown Northfield isn’t easy, but  on average, is evolutionary and sustainable, given proper nurturing and well-maintained  infrastructure. I’ll show you what I mean.

Lockwood Building Makeover

A few weeks ago I decided to quantify this evolutionary story and see how many names I could actually remember from the past decade of business transitions. I think I did pretty well, but I know that I didn’t get them all. I also wish that I had been doing this all along so that I could add the year in which they were born, moved or perished. At any rate, as unscientific as this exercise was, a few things are clear. We’ve lost 62 businesses over the past ten years and gained 85 businesses.  That would be a net gain of 23 businesses over the period.  We’ve lost an average of 6.2 businesses a year and gained an average of 8.5 businesses a year.  That would be an annual gain of 2.3 businesses per year.

We miss you Brian

A couple of observations follow from these stats. For the overall local economy, the picture is even brighter, since some of the businesses that moved are still in operation. When I refer to a business as “lost”, I simply mean that the downtown district was reduced by one business. Also, this index doesn’t offer any insight into revenue status for the district so the growth I’m showing is in business units only. For example, in one case, a business closed and the physical space was subdivided into three smaller shops. I have no way of knowing if the cumulative revenue of the new businesses is greater or lesser than the revenue of the closed business. Given the fact that we’ve experienced two recessions during the decade, my guess is that overall volume may be lower, but the fact that the buildings continue to be occupied and the occupants are conducting business is a good indicator of relative economic health.

I don’t know if this little project will bring happiness to anyone, especially with the heavy property tax burden that continues to be a major problem for owners of historic buildings, but that’s fodder for another post. Right now, suffice it to say that I believe the downtown district has a viable, healthy economy and has adapted well to large market fluctuations. The next big challenge it faces is the possible loss of the Bridge Square Post Office, a traffic magnet. More on that later.

POSTSCRIPT 5/16/11

This appears to be a topic on which I expend a fair amount of mental energy. Cruising back through time, I found that I posted on the same theme about four years ago: http://bit.ly/mEw8XW.

Posted by: Dan Bergeson | April 30, 2011

It’s Loony Tunes in the State House!

My last post offered commentary on what I perceive to be irrational legislative ideas in our nation’s capitol. Never fear: our state’s politicians are equally as misguided!

So . . . there’s a $5 billion deficit to make up in the 2-yr budget for 2012-14. And what do our fine legislators propose to do about it?

One way to deal with a wayward budget is by cutting the Meals on Wheels program by $2.7 million. You remember that one, it’s designed to bring meals to senior citizens and other folks who basically can’t leave their domiciles due to infirm conditions or illness and can’t afford to have food delivered by others. That seems extravagant to me, don’t you agree?

Black Walnut canopy

Then there’s the visionary idea of harvesting timber from our state parks. Apparently, someone figured out that the black walnut trees found in a couple of southeastern Minnesota state parks would be ripe for the pickin’ and bring a windfall to the state coffers. The figure I heard was $100,000 maybe. No one knows for sure because this hasn’t been done before. And since it would decimate the existing trees, it’s really a one-shot option. That’s surely a sustainable plan.

Of course, letting internet retailers like amazon.com ignore the legal obligation to collect  sales tax on online purchases instead of receiving the hundreds of millions of dollars that are involved is prudent financial stewardship of state resources in my opinion. How about you?

There’s a bill that seeks to remove the poor from Minnesota’s UCare health care safety net because it’s more respectful to let them purchase their own health insurance, even though the high deductible is more than their ANNUAL income! Once again, trying to balance the budget on our most vulnerable citizens.

Some want to cancel collective bargaining rights for public employees; does anyone really think that the anti-union attack will stop there? Just because Wisconsin is doing it doesn’t mean Minnesota should.

I appreciated the candor and sincerity of a clergyman from Chaska in a StarTribune opinion piece earlier this week. Gordon Stewart wonders why some folks define themselves only as taxpayers and not also as tax benficiaries. All the tax dodging that’s going on is eviscerating our standard of living.

My list is getting kind of long. There’s obviously a lot of creative juices flowing in St. Paul these days, but I can’t forget to mention my favorite issue in this issue-oriented political environment: pro-choice for light bulbs! Yep, there are some who feel that mandating the move to compact flourescent light bulbs is a conspiracy destined to undermine the Republic. Thanks to Michelle Bachmann, H.R. 5616 is back in play in 2011.

Long live incandescence!

Posted by: Dan Bergeson | April 11, 2011

Political equilibrium at what price?

Let me get this straight. Legislators in our nation’s capitol have been striving to avert the halting of the engines of government  over a disagreement involving reproductive health care for poor women. This has got to be a high point in the evolutionary history of democracy. Where do we go from here?

Apparently, in a context of a $14 trillion national debt and negotiations over $40 Billion in spending cuts,  the arguments of the past week have involved some millions of dollars of federal funding for Planned Parenthood chapters throughout the country. Minnesota stands to win/lose $3.7M in funding for 2011.

The rhetoric over this issue (as in many cases in the current political climate) revolves around the word “abortion”. Ironically, this particular argument  is about title X legislation, which does pay for pap smears, breast exams, and birth control for poor women, but DOES NOT pay for abortions, no matter what the talking heads say. So the stalemate has been total political theater. What bullshit.

We were about to furlough 800,000 federal workers, not pay our military service people on active duty and shut down parks, museums, and other federal sites because we thought it was unecessary to provide medical assistance for women below the poverty line who cannot pay for reproductive health care on their own. Good on us.

Posted by: Dan Bergeson | March 13, 2011

amazon.com owes Minnesota millions

OK, I understand that the state of Minnesota is staring down a $5 billion budget deficit over the next biennium and REALLY struggling to figure out how to resolve it. Ouch. I gather that there are many different scenarios for how to accomplish this gargantuan feat and that most of these are extremely partisan. That makes consensus pretty hard to achieve. At least harmoniously.

I’d like to offer a partial solution that doesn’t seem to be particularly partisan yet doesn’t appear to be on anyone’s radar at the moment.  There are e-commerce retailers (read websites that sell stuff) that are legally obliged to collect sales tax on their transactions with Minnesota customers (if they meet certain criteria) and are refusing to do so.  amazon.com is the biggest offender.

The law says that if online retailers have “nexus” in the state of Minnesota (or any other state), then they must collect and pay the appropriate state sales tax. Nexus is defined as having a physical presence in the state. Physical presence can be a bricks-and-mortar store, a warehouse or distribution facility, or a corps of “affiliates”. This definition has been challenged and upheld in federal court.  An affiliate is a person or company with a website that is commissioned to make a percentage of a sales transaction originating in a link from their website to the e-commerce retailer. amazon.com has thousands of “affiliates” in the state of Minnesota.

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