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Minnesota Experimental City – Swatara under glass? - MessAge Media: Community

Minnesota Experimental City – Swatara under glass?

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Posted: Wednesday, July 10, 2013 6:00 am

On a winter day in 1973, the Minnesota Experimental City authority picked a 74,000-acre piece of land in northern Aitkin and eastern Cass County to build a city to house 250,000 people. Not long after, the Aitkin County board voted 5-0 in favor of the project. Yet not one tree was cut down, no land was bulldozed level; it never happened. Decades have passed and still when some of us who were present back then get together, occasionally someone will ask, “Remember MXC?”

Should there be no doubt, I was actively opposed to the notion of MXC and so this account will reflect my own viewpoint. However, the basic idea behind MXC was not all bad and better ways need to be considered for city planning. Expansion, which equates with progress in the minds of some, must be accompanied by preserving what is of historical and environmental value. Not all of life’s gems revolve around economics.

MXC began as the brainchild of Athelstan Spilhaus, the once dean of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology. It was to be the first big city planned from the ground up. It seemed like a good idea. All aspects of the construction and future life of the city would be planned before-hand with the hope of eliminating problems that arise as a normal city spreads out, devouring the surrounding landscape.  

Spilhaus and others pointed to the chaos of development that was occurring around the Twin Cities as evidence that some other method of growth was needed.

Why not, Spilhaus advocated, build an entirely new city somewhere far away to relieve some of the growth of the urban areas? And do it in an orderly fashion, with handpicked residents.

It all began in 1971 when Spilhaus and his followers gained the support of the Minnesota Legislature and the Legislature authorized the creation of an MXC board to further explore the idea. A federal grant of $250,000 was secured, and private corporations contributed another $1,000,000 or so. Contributors included Honeywell, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Ford Motor Company, Pillsbury and others. Additional research support came from University of Minnesota, North Star Research and others. Several potential sites were located around the state and eventually all but two were eliminated. The “winners” included the Aitkin-Cass site located north and west of Swatara and the other near Alexandria.

The selection of Aitkin-Cass site over the Alexandria location was part of the catalyst that began the resistance to the new city. Nearly every physical aspect of the Alexandria site was superior to the Aitkin-Cass site, and it soon became apparent that the selection was based on perceived resistance, and not science. The Alexandria site was nearly all private land, mostly productive generational farms, and there was surely going to be a legal battle over condemnation proceedings. The Aitkin-Cass site was mostly public land, with only a few “back woods” residents.

Yet out of the “back woods” came an uprising.

People of many different vocations, from teachers to mill workers, from farmers to retirees – and even a priest –  came together and formed a group called Save Our Northland. They began a citizen’s investigation into the details of the planned city and soon discovered some disturbing, interesting and even comical information.

It was noted the make up of the MXC board contained no one from rural Minnesota. Ten of the original 13 members were from the Twin Cities. No one on the board had any training in environmental issues. No one took into account the impact placing a 250,000-person city would have on surrounding cities, on recreational land use, on area lakes, on forestry.

Then the city’s plans, heretofore something of a secret, began to surface. A huge glass dome was to cover the city center, (no one had a clue how to build it) no cars would be allowed and people would get around on movable sidewalks. Since the city was to be self-sufficient, cattle were to be kept in hi-rise barns.

The final price tag: 10 to 20 billion in 1973 dollars. A large portion of the cost would have to come from federal, state and local taxes. With money tight, the country was swinging into a conservative mood and many began to question the wisdom of spending this vast sum when so many other projects (roads, infrastructure, education, etc) needed immediate attention.

Then there were legal issues. In the view of the planners, for the city to succeed it would have to have governmental control over a vast surrounding area, green space it was called, where there could be no private landholdings at all. While not part of the city proper, this green space would have encompassed my own property. This 74,000-acre city’s control would extend all the way to Grand Rapids, Deer River, Hill City and Remer.

A legal review of the proposed city government concluded that changes would have to be made in the state Constitution in order for it to be legal. Increasingly, it began to look like MXC was operating on a “make it up as you go along” mode with new questions and concerns arising daily.    

Then in the dead of winter, some members of the Save Our Northland group, led by Carol and Ben O’Brien and others, walked from Swatara to St. Paul in protest, and drew national attention. Time magazine did a short article on MXC and featured a picture of the group arriving in St. Paul.

School buses loaded with local citizens descended on legislative hearings, voicing their concerns. The beginning of the end for MXC came at a hearing before the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

As a representative of the SON group, I spoke to the fact that affected residents had not been allowed a voice in the decision, that there were serious flaws in the planning, that there were serious legal questions. But mostly I spoke to the environmental concerns raised by plunking down a quarter of a million people (a city two and a half times the size of Duluth) in the middle of northern Minnesota.

No one on the MXC board could give a coherent answer. So, by an 8-1 vote, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ruled against the MXC board and the Aitkin-Cass site stating, from an environmental point of view, “[MXC] does not seem to be a prudent policy.”

At this point the MXC board began taking a look at the other potential construction sites. They needed another $300,000 to keep the project going. But based on the public input and negative publicity, legislative committees began to shut the project down.  

There was growing interest in financing a new sports stadium. MXC’s request for additional funding was never acted upon, and by June 1973 MXC ceased to be.

But the concept of an entirely new city built from scratch did not die entirely. It was considered for a time by other states including Alaska and Ohio. Something of hybrid version did come to pass in Reston, Va. Reston did not begin as a totally new community, but did incorporate some of Spilhaus’ ideas. However, it is not self-sufficient, there are no moveable sidewalks, there is not an immense dome covering the city center, and there are no cows in hi-rise barns. And there are 60,000 people living there rather than 250,000.

It is not even a city, in that there is no central government. It does not, therefore, exert governmental control over a vast surrounding area. It can best be described as a pre-planned community. There is ample green space with hiking, fishing, campgrounds, and picnic areas, which take advantage of Virginia’s moderate climate. The largest employer is the U.S. Geological Survey. The community attracts mainly technologically orientated firms.

MXC was a radical concept, built upon one man’s vision, and would have required a huge investment of taxpayer dollars, changes to the Minnesota Constitution, strict environmental and pollution controls and dealing with a harsh northern Minnesota environment.  

The notion of planned expansion, however, is a good one and one that demands the close scrutiny of all communities.

Terry Mejdrich is an Independent Age writer and columnist.

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