The city of North Branch has much to be proud of. That was the sentiment of mayor Jim Swenson as he gave a “state of the city” address during the North Branch Chamber of Commerce Luncheon held at the American Legion on Tuesday, Oct. 8.
“We’ve been doing wonderful, great things for our community this year,” Swenson began. “It has been a very, very exciting year for our city. We are working very hard for all of you, to support you.”
One of the recent highlights brought up by Swenson was the high-speed internet survey that was mailed to residents.
“We sent out 3,500 surveys, and we received over 37% back,” Swenson said. “They’ve mapped it out and it’s all areas of our city. Every place you look, internet is one of the top things people want to have in our community. Staff has been working with the EDA, the county, the state legislature. We have serious plans for how we can try to help this community get internet. Everybody deserves to have internet. It’s not just the people in the cities that deserve it.”
Swenson then touched on the rebranding project that is ongoing.
“During the Minnesota Design Team visit last year, one of the things they told us was we need to get ourselves our own identity,” he said. “We need to get a new logo for our city. We’ve been having meetings since May, and I think we are getting real close on something that might work out for our community.”
Infrastructure was the next topic addressed by Swenson as he talked about the numerous projects that have been ongoing or completed, including street improvements and the extension of city water and sewer.
Specifically, Swenson mentioned the Hemingway Street extension. Swenson said the extension has been completed as far as the city can go, and now it’s up to the state to finish connecting it to Highway 95, which will involve a roundabout at that intersection.
“That will hopefully be completed next summer,” he said. “So that will give us another route around the schools to avoid all the traffic.”
The other major project the mayor touched on was the Flink project, which connected the city’s water and sewer underneath the Sunrise River and the I-35 freeway.
“We’re thinking outside the box, looking five, 10, 20 years down the road,” he said. “Getting development on the other side, farther down, I think, is a big plus for our community.”
The mayor addressed the housing situation of the community, specifically the lack of rentals.
“There’s no rentals available in North Branch,” he said, “which we need for our businesses and our community. We need to get some housing and specifically affordable housing.”
Swenson brought up two projects that will help alleviate that in the WillowGrove project, which will be a 20-unit mental health facility, plus the Cherokee Place, which will be a 48-unit affordable housing development.
Finally, Swenson addressed business growth.
“The downtown is now a destination to be. It is now filled up. Three, four, five years ago, people were saying, ‘The downtown is dying.’ We have people coming back,” he said, while mentioning several new businesses to the area, including the two Kwik Trips.
On the other side of the coin, however, Swenson couldn’t give an answer to what, if anything, is in the works to fill the Shopko building or the mostly-vacant Outlet Mall.
“Staff is trying to find the right business to fill the space, (but) we’ve heard everything from a hockey arena to a Country Buffet and on and on,” he said. “They have owners who are working very hard to fill them.”
New source of info
With all that’s happening in the town, the city decided there needed to be a better way to spread the word about the various projects. City administrator Renae Fry told the audience about the creation of a development update.
“One of the things we keep hearing about is that folks aren’t aware of all the great things happening in the community from month to month or week to week,” Fry said. “So Carla (Vita, the city’s economic developer) created a development update that we present to our Economic Development Authority as the first thing on their monthly meeting agenda.”
Fry said the EDA meetings are video-recorded, so people can watch the meetings at their leisure from home. She said people can also email her to be included on a list of people who are automatically emailed the update. Fry’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.