The future is now: Highway 371 bypass begins Tuesday
PEQUOT LAKES — If the history of time is measured in eras, a new one dawns Tuesday for the small city of Pequot Lakes.
On Tuesday, drivers traveling along Highway 371 will shift to the east and christen a newly constructed stretch of four-lane pavement. Tuesday marks the first day highway traffic will no longer slow to a stop under the shadow of the iconic Pequot Lakes bobber water tower. And it's the day the future of a city post-bypass — long contemplated and prepared for by its residents and business owners — begins to come into focus.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation announced this week the four lanes, interchange with County Highway 11 and new routes into downtown Pequot Lakes will be open by 9 p.m. Tuesday. The existing Highway 371, directing traffic through the heart of the city for decades, will become a local route named Patriot Avenue.
Stirring passionate support and bitter opposition for 20 years, the new route represented equal parts excitement and apprehension among those who spoke with the Brainerd Dispatch on Thursday.
"When it first started, I guess I was against it," said Vicki Bachmann, a Pequot Lakes resident on her way to shop at Supervalu. "But now that it's happening, and how busy especially 371 is, I think it's going to be awesome. Because I think the people that generally come to our stores and businesses — they're going to come to those anyway."
Also at Supervalu, Larry Parker of Pequot Lakes said the change was 20 years too late and called the current traffic situation a "disaster."
"It's too much, you can't get out," Parker said. "In order to get onto the highway, you've gotta go to the stoplight. It's as simple as that."
"It's kind of mixed thoughts," said CB Finley of Pine River outside a strip of businesses on Government Drive. "It's a good thing, because it's going to cut down on a lot of the congestion, which is obviously why they got it. But it's also going to cut out a lot of traffic for businesses."
Road to realignment
MnDOT engineer Tony Hughes has worked on the 371 project for 15 years. Hughes conducted the first study on the possibility of expanding the corridor in 2002, and after shifting to the construction division of the state agency, was assigned management of the project.
"It feels exciting to see something you worked on and put a lot of time into, to finally move from paper and study to actual grading and work and completion in the field," Hughes said.
Undertaking study of the roadway was an acknowledgment of increasing traffic pressure on the route, which provides a direct route north for those joining the weekly pilgrimage northward.
"The need for the project was driven by safety and capacity of the roadway," Hughes said.
Traffic volumes within the long corridor vary, Hughes said, but general projections in 2006 indicated the average daily traffic would double by 2030. Peak volumes — such as the traffic experienced on Friday afternoons — were already double the average, Hughes said, and were expected to double again. Hughes said although the Great Recession caused a slowdown in this trajectory, regular traffic counts indicate the pattern has remained true to the prediction.
The two-lane corridor also experienced a high number of crashes — some sections saw twice the state average in the crash rate and severity, Hughes said.
The road to breaking ground for the project wasn't free of its own treachery. A number of public hearings raised tensions as community members sounded the alarm of business impact — could the economy of Pequot Lakes survive a dramatic drop-off of traffic volume? Meanwhile, others raised the specter of increasing safety concerns for Pequot Lakes High School students and the public in general, along with a disconnect between the east and west sides of the city.
After first deciding the future four-lane highway should follow its current route, the Pequot Lakes City Council reversed its decision in support of diverting traffic to a new route east of town.
"We kind of inherited that decision," said Scott Pederson, a council member in his second term. "It was good that a decision was made, and we're just going to make the best of it."
"We have a lot to offer in the town," said Mimi Swanson, council member since January. "For the road to go through town would have just pretty much destroyed us, I think. I think going around like this, a couple blocks away from our main city, it's not that far from the exit of the new road. I'm kind of looking on the bright side and being positive. Because guess what? It's there. We can't change it."
"I really am pleased to see that it's finally opening. I'm just thrilled," said Mayor Nancy Adams. "It is what it is, and now everyone wants to make the best of what it's going to be."
Promoting Pequot Lakes
As plans for the bypass finalized, city leaders began their own plans for the future of Pequot Lakes. A number of initiatives were pursued in support of strengthening the downtown business community, including establishing a "grow zone" limiting regulations and streamlining permitting and committing to low-density zoning along the new 371 corridor, effectively limiting the sprawl of commercial growth.
With construction underway in early 2016, the city turned its gaze toward development of Trailside Park and other amenities. Through the Thriving Communities Initiative program, headed by the Initiative Foundation, community members are working toward a cohesive vision for Pequot Lakes, Adams said.
"It really allows us to grow as a city," Adams said. "Once we take control of these roads next year in 2018, we can do all of the things that we've been planning on. Through Thriving Communities, through the city, through the big donations to the park, we can really start to do some of that."
Plans call for a portion of the old Highway 371 and the stoplight to be removed, expanding the park westward toward the bobber water tower. An anonymous $250,000 donation will support installation of a state flag display and a splash pad, and the future includes an ice skating rink. A skateboard park is also under development.
"With building the downtown into an area that's got shops and restaurants and a park with plenty of parking, I think it will be a good thing for Pequot in the long run," Pederson said. "I have not heard the gloom and doom that I once heard when this decision was being argued. I hear more guarded optimism from a couple of the downtown businesses. It's like, 'Well, we'll see.'"
Adams said the park will add to the community's image as a destination, although marketing the city to visitors was a priority.
"We need to go on social media, we need to let people know that we're here," Adams said. "The bike path, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, walking in the woods in a real park where you can walk three-quarters of a mile around the woods — those are the things that we will let people know we have. ... We've done a poor job of letting people know it's here."
Opinions of those working at downtown businesses Thursday about the park and other amenities ranged from enthusiastic to cautiously optimistic.
Linda Miller worked behind the counter at the newly relocated Fun Sisters boutique. Miller said events at the park could use extra space, including concerts, car and craft shows and Bean Hole Days. She added those enjoying the park would be much more likely to venture to the west side of town, a trek once requiring shoppers to cross the busy highway.
"People are going to be able to walk to the other side of town," Miller said. "There's some shops over there. Right now, nobody will go that way because of the traffic and the traffic light. I think anybody that lives here or is a merchant here is excited about the changes."
Carole Park, an employee of Leslie's Boutique for 30 years, saw the park as a destination for young families that could be a draw.
"Our park area is really getting used since they put that playground in," Park said. "That was a great thing to start with because it gives the kids something to do. ... I hope that that really benefits the whole town bringing people in. The more we have to do the better it is. They don't have to go just to Brainerd then."
At Expressions Shoe Center, manager Valorie Wolkenhauer recognized the park's benefits, but was skeptical of the scope of its impact.
"It will be nice for my kid to walk to school by himself without being afraid he's going to get run over by a car, and my younger kids will love having a bigger park," Wolkenhauer said. "But I don't know how much more people that's going to draw in, just because we're a big area of lakes. You can go play in the water whenever you want."
A fluid future
What the future holds for Pequot Lakes isn't certain — although ultimately, the future for any place is uncertain. Adams noted what's currently underway is a start, and efforts must be adaptable as time continues and different challenges arise.
"I don't think anything we decide now is going to last 10 or 20 years," Adams said. "It's fluid, and you have to change it to what the times and the efforts of people are going to be. ... People really have stepped up. They have participated, they have made suggestions. And now as we get into this, it is exciting and we'll start to see it."
As for the road construction, MnDOT public affairs coordinator J.P. Gillach said the project is on schedule and he expected all lanes to be open to traffic by autumn, if not sooner.
"Almost all of the remaining work happens between Nisswa and where the new four-lane segment will open," Gillach said.
Hughes reminded drivers to proceed with caution through the construction zone, noting much of what remained would be occurring closer to traffic.
Open house scheduled June 15
Residents, businesses and visitors to the area are invited to join the Minnesota Department of Transportation and project leaders at an outdoor open house from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 15 alongside vendors at the Pequot Lakes Marketplace in the Park. Watch for more information on the open house soon.
When the project is complete in fall 2017, motorists will see:
• Highway 371 expanded to four lanes between Nisswa and Jenkins
• A new Highway 371/County Road 11 interchange that provides safe and easy access to Pequot Lakes
• A new, safer access to the Highway 371 frontage road in Jenkins
• A new box culvert bridge spanning Cullen Brook
• A realigned and improved Paul Bunyan State Trail
• Improvements to the local road systems in Pequot Lakes and Jenkins