The Amick family easily fills up the couch in their new Brainerd home. Michael and Susan Amick sit with 10-year old Christopher, seven-year old Elliot, five-year old Gabriella and 14-month old Ruby.
The Amicks moved here from Moorhead a few weeks ago. Michael took a job at Brainerd's Central Lakes College, and Susan home schools their four children.
"It offered so much nature and recreation," said Michael. "A good opportunity for our family to live in a rural setting that was beautiful. So that made the decision easier because it was such an attractive place,"
Here in the family living room, a huge picture window looks out over a forest of aspens that wraps around the house. The Amicks love this two and a half acre suburban homestead. Mom and dad enjoy the privacy, and the kids like to play in the woods behind the house.
“It just seemed like these people build and then these people build. It just exploded,”Brainerd Mayor James Wallin
The Brainerd area has attracted a lot of new residents over the past 10 years, so many that even those who expected the growth, like Brainerd Mayor James Wallin, were taken by surprise.
"It just seemed like these people build and then these people build. It just exploded," Wallin said.
Wallin is mayor of a boom town. He says to appreciate the robust growth, all you have do is drive around the community.
"It used to be nothing but trees and a dirt road. Now there's a dirt road, but there's more side roads with houses going up, foundations being put in," Wallin said.
Brainerd sits in central Minnesota's Crow Wing County, next to its even faster growing sister city of Baxter. The area is surrounded by lakes made legendary by generations of vacationers. But in recent years baby boomers, many from the Twin Cities, have converted their lake cabins into permanent lake homes. A lakeside land rush has pretty much eaten up the area's water front property, and now retirees and young families are spreading out in suburban style developments across the region.
According to Minnesota State Demographer Tom Gillaspy, the Brainerd/Baxter area is one of the fastest growing non-metro communities in the nation.
"It doesn't look like it's going to stop anytime soon. We're not seeing any indication of the growth slowing down. It looks like the growth is going to continue to be fairly solid," Gillaspy said.
According to Census Bureau estimates, the population of Crow Wing County is expected to grow 60 percent in the next 20 years, from about 60,000 now to 90,000 in 2030.
Many in Brainerd and Baxter welcome the growth, and say it's better than living in a dying town. But some say the growth is coming too fast.
To see why some residents are worried, visit the rapidly growing retail strip along Highway 371 in Baxter. A few years ago this area was thick with jack pines. But now it's covered with asphalt and big box retail architecture.
Newspaper reporter Renee Richardson has lived in the area for 12 years. Richardson writes stories on business, government and demographics for the Brainerd Dispatch. At first the vibrant development was more than welcome, and according to Richardson most residents encouraged it to continue.
"It was kind of 'Throw the doors open wide! We want development! We want new businesses to come in to help with the tax base, to help with jobs!' And then it got to be 'Well, it doesn't look necessarily the way one would hope'," Richardson said.
While area leaders still want a growing community, Richardson has noticed their attitude toward how that growth plays out is changing.
“We think it would almost be a mortal sin to be developing with any concrete or asphalt,”Dennis Coryell
"It's kind of going back a little bit and saying we want to have a growth community and we know that's going to continue," Richardson said. "We have the demographics showing that more and more people are going to arrive here, where are they going to live? How's it going to look? And how do you retain some of that rural landscape?,"
Baxter city officials don't want a noisy retail strip to be their town's image. They'd rather people know about the rest of Baxter. A few blocks away from the strip, Baxter turns into quiet, lush maze of curving streets and forested lakes.
Baxter's city hall sits among the aspen trees on a small lake, and that's where city administrator Dennis Coryell has his office. Coryell says Baxter is far from overdeveloped, and he wants to keep it that way.
"Most of the natural features, believe it or not, are still present in our land. We wish to preserve that, enhance that and make sure that we're not trying to develop every square inch of what's out there," Coryell said.
Baxter is spread over many square miles, but less then a third of that acreage is developed. Coryell feels now is the perfect time for the city to prepare for future growth. The city's long range plan calls for setting aside large tracts of land, thousands of acres, and then concentrating development around those preserved spaces.
"We will build trails so that people can go birding, but we will leave the woods the way they are. We think it would almost be a mortal sin to be developing with any concrete or asphalt," Coryell said.
One of the places officials would like to preserve sits on the city's southern edge on land farmed by some of the region's early homesteaders.
Todd Holman is a former Baxter city administrator who now works for the Nature Conservancy. As he hiked through the property, he said his organization is working with the Trust for Public Land, local governments and several charitable foundations to buy a few parcels of land, several hundred acres in all.
He admits the surrounding land will someday hold Baxter's expanding neighborhoods, but hopes this part remains an untouched island of prairie flowers and ancient towering red pines.
"For me it's just kind of exciting to see it all here, right in town. And it's ready. You can just come here and enjoy it," Holman said.
Other communities in this part of Minnesota are also thinking about how to balance development and preservation. The Brainerd Lakes Area Chambers of Commerce is encouraging cities in Crow Wing and nearby Cass County to cooperate on a plan to manage growth. Everyone agrees the last thing they want is for the area to lose its natural appeal, which is what attracted so many people in the first place.