First Impressions Important To City's Future

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Will Rogers
American humorist, author

A couple times a year the Benson City Council takes a trip around the community to survey areas where work is underway, where work needs to be done, and to plan for the future.

During Monday night’s meeting it traveled out to the Benson Power plant site, now owned by Xcel Energy, to discuss future possibilities and obligations should it pursue an economic development project with Brightmark Energy. The California company is proposing a biogas facility for the site that could, if the project is undertaken and proves successful, see $250 million invested in Benson.

It also stopped at what was once known as the Cottage Square development.  In 2007, the City of Benson entered into a development agreement with TK Management to develop housing in northeast Benson. It paid $75,000 toward the engineering costs for the infrastructure to facilitate the project’s construction.

TK Management of Alexandria agreed to construct the development’s infrastructure no later than June 2008 as well as apply for two building permits and start construction on two homes. However, in 2007 the nation’s housing market and economy tanked.  In November 2008, TK Management asked the city for a one-year extension of the development agreement. When that extension ran out, still no work had taken place.

Today, the site is still privately owned and marketed, but no homes have been built. The infrastructure is in place, but with the high cost to build homes these days, the declining population in rural areas, and the high number of homes already for sale, development potential is understandably slow.

Still, the City of Benson needs affordable workforce housing. While other sites are available for development, the council considered whether or not it should study facilitating construction of homes, duplexes, or apartments in the area.

Another stop on the south side of the tracks looked at dilapidated properties where junk, weeds, and volunteer trees have created eyesores. In the past, the city has also looked at properties where cars and trucks are parked on the grass in yards, degrading the residential look of a neighborhood.

Benson police will be looking into the rundown, junk-strewn properties, urging the owners to clean them up. Failure to take action could end with a property owner getting a citation, then the city coming in and cleaning it up with the owner billed.

We have urged the council in the past to address the number of vehicles parking on the lawns in front of and next to homes for several years now, but no action has been considered. Many communities our size have laws in place to govern parking in yards and it wouldn’t be hard to adopt a local ordinance based on laws already proven effective.

People make a lot of judgments based on first appearances. Right or wrong, those judgments can prejudice how they view an entire community.

Through the years Benson has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in its efforts to attract businesses to the community and to help the local businesses expand. It has also worked hard to attract new residents to the community who can fill the jobs at local retail stores and manufacturing businesses.

Individual homeowners and business owners have invested in their properties to make them attractive.

Rural Minnesota is being unsettled as more young people graduate from our schools and head to metropolitan areas for jobs and atmosphere they see as a little more exciting than a small town life provides. However, as they grow older, some consider moving back.

What kind of an impression does our community make on those who are thinking about life in a small town? What kind of an impression does our town make on people coming here to fill job vacancies? What they see when they drive around Benson could make the difference between accepting a job and making our town their home, or moving on.

Benson’s council has been right in encouraging, sometimes with a little added persuasion through its ordinances, people and business owners to clean up their properties. It should pass a residential parking law yet this year to get people’s vehicles off their yards.

Our efforts at economic development can be easily frustrated if we don’t give a good first impression to the people giving us a look. It can also lead some people to want to leave a community that lacks pride in the way it presents itself.

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