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Sustaining Brainerd's buzz: 2nd Destination Downtown Business Challenge to begin

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People gather for this year's Destination Downtown Business Challenge kickoff Thursday, June 28, at the old Iron Rail in downtown Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video2 / 2

Another prize is up for grabs for a new business to come into downtown Brainerd.

A second Destination Downtown Business Challenge was announced Thursday, June 28, during a launch party at the Koop Building, formerly known as the Iron Rail Saloon in downtown Brainerd. The contest's mission is to find a new business to join the more than 50 businesses already located within the core of downtown. Last year, 49 entrepreneurs threw their hats into the ring to become part of the Destination Downtown contest, after which one business—Purple Fern Bath Co.—was named the winner.

Destination Downtown is a community effort in which the winner of the contest receives $50,000 worth of prizes to help the person locate a business in downtown Brainerd with support for success. Contest organizers created what they termed Opportunity Square, or four square blocks of downtown Brainerd with 18 empty storefronts. The Destination Downtown contest was inspired by the Small Business Revolution initiative, championed by the Minnesota-based Deluxe Corp.

Local investors chipped in toward another $50,000 community prize package for a second round to find another business idea to come downtown.

Matt Kilian, president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, said seeing the progress made in downtown Brainerd has been amazing. In the past two years, 10 new businesses have made downtown Brainerd home. Kilian said last year there was 13 empty spots for people to consider starting a business in. Currently, there are 18 empty spaces. He said the reason why there are more spaces is because Pueringer Investments is remodeling the old Brainerd Mall into more business spaces, located next to the Koop Building on Seventh Street.

"It's hot outside, it's hot in here, but I will tell you what else is hot, it's downtown Brainerd," Kilian told a sizable crowd. "When I first moved into town there were a few things people said about downtown. Either downtown Brainerd was dying or it was dead. The rumors of Brainerd's demise are greatly exaggerated. Downtown Brainerd is back.

"Our future is even brighter and better (than downtown Brainerd's past). People always want character, they always want authenticity, they want craftsmanship, and that is what downtown offers.They are not manufacturing anymore downtowns. We have one right here and we need to take care of it."

Kilian said the positivity and energy surrounding the initiative has been amazing.

"When we launch a contest like this, the aim is to bring a new business, a magnet business," Kilian said. "We also want to continue the buzz and positivity. I'm optimistic about the future of downtown Brainerd. It is really exciting to be part of it."

Kilian said the contest is looking for someone who already has a business idea and is ready to move forward to start their business. If someone is interested in entering the contest, they may go to and answer five questions to include the business idea, their target market and how it will contribute to downtown Brainerd. The winner of the contest will be announced in November.

Brainerd Mayor Ed Menk said launching the contest for the second year is "fantastic" and he hopes to see the number of entries double.

"In these past two to three years we have seen such a huge revitalization of downtown Brainerd," Menk said. "You start looking up and down the street. ... We have a number of businesses that have opened up here and it is revitalizing our downtown."

Menk has worked in downtown Brainerd for about 40 years and these past few years have been the most excitement he has seen in improving downtown.

"The amazing thing about this initiative is the excitement that was created last year and the positive results we've seen in downtown Brainerd," Bill Potvin, one of the judges of the contest, said. "Last year we awarded (Purple Fern Bath Co.), but we also have seen other improvements downtown. With 49 applicants last year it will be interesting to see how many we will see this year. ... Only time will tell.

"If someone has an idea, something they really believe in and have an idea on how to accomplish it, they should give (the contest) a try because there is a lot of support if they win the package. This is a great opportunity to fulfil their dreams."

Steve Barrows, who currently is a Baxter City Council member, said he is running for District 3 on the Crow Wing County Board so he said what happens in downtown Brainerd concerns him.

"From the county level I want to make sure we are a potential partner in some of the projects," Barrows said. "If nothing else, I am here to pat people on the back who are trying to revitalize downtown Brainerd, which is a great thing. I grew up here, this is the downtown Brainerd I know."

Cynthia Askerooth-Olson of Baxter, who attended the launch party, said she may enter the contest. Askerooth-Olson, who is a retired elementary school art teacher in the Brainerd School District, said one of her ideas would be to have an art space for veterans and children, combined with a bookstore. She said she would like the space to be where people can come in and do art.

Askerooth-Olson said one of her passions for downtown Brainerd would be to have a community center. She said she would like to have a place where people can come without having to buy anything.

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