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Highway 371 concerns veer toward ways to get motorists into town

With the expansion of Highway 371 to four lanes still on track to happen in 2018, concerns in Pequot Lakes have veered from through town vs. around town to how to attract motorists into the city.

The city, its residents and business owners argued for years over whether the four-lane highway should be built through town or just east of town. In the end, the bypass option was chosen and the issue quieted down for a couple of years.

On Thursday, May 30, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), Brainerd Lakes Chamber and city of Pequot Lakes hosted two meetings — one for businesses and one for residents — to provide updates on the project’s status and field questions.

More than a dozen people representing businesses turned out, including several whose property will be affected by the bypass route. Jim Hallgren, MnDOT project manager, said currently MnDOT is working to acquire right-of-way and then will start negotiating with affected property owners to buy their properties.

The goal is to acquire the majority of right-of-way from 2015-17. That includes all or parts of 80-90 parcels of land, and displacing six to 10 property owners. Highway work could start in late summer 2017 if the project stays on track.

Lisa Paxton, Brainerd Lakes Chamber CEO, asked about the highway’s connectivity to the business district. Currently the business district is within view of the highway. Paxton asked whether there would be any landscaping, lighting or signs to signify the business district is off the highway.

Pequot Lakes Mayor Nancy Adams said the town will be very visible from the Highway 371-County Road 11 intersection. She said the city’s goal is to make it attractive and easy to get into town at the three future locations of County Road 168 near Timberjack Smokehouse south of town; County Road 11 in town; and County Road 17 north of town.

That issue is one the city council identified in a visioning session earlier this year.

David Kennedy of Boardwalk Scoops asked if a possible interchange with exit and entrance ramps and an overpass at the County Road 11-Highway 371 intersection would obscure visibility from the highway.

Hallgren said motorists would need to consciously know to get off there to get into Pequot Lakes. He said blue signs that list upcoming gas stations and restaurants could possibly be put up, as well as a sign that reads, “Pequot Lakes, next three exits.”

Michelle Lelwica, owner of Hopkins Health and Wellness and Snap Fitness, and a chamber board member, asked about the possibility of making it a default to go into town and a second thought to bypass the town, rather than the other way around. Tom Sorrel, the state’s former transportation commissioner, suggested that in a discussion with Lelwica and others.

Hallgren didn’t say that wouldn’t be possible, but he said there would be challenges and many hoops to jump through for any changes in the highway route to accomplish that.

“As a community, what do we have to do to get the most money out of the state for landscaping?” Lelwica later asked.

Hallgren replied: “I don’t have any wonderful words of wisdom. I guess just keep beating me down.”

Ann Hutchings of Grace United Methodist Church asked if the city and MnDOT could look at neighboring communities who have experienced what Pequot Lakes will to find out what works and what doesn’t work for them.

Hallgren said there have been numerous studies done on communities that have had highway realignments.

“Some communities fare better than others,” he said, noting successful communities have active organizations to advance the community and community spirit.

In other updates, Hallgren said MnDOT had received a request from Crow Wing County for an interchange rather than an at-grade traffic light at the future Highway 371-County Road 11 intersection. Hallgren said MnDOT needs to draw what that interchange would look like and continue discussions with the county on how to accomplish that.

“It’s looking good for an interchange, but we still have to carry out those conversations with the county at this time,” Hallgren said.

Regarding landscaping, Hallgren said those discussions typically start when a project is done and people can visibly see what it looks like. Signs are part of those discussions.

MnDOT then would seek a commitment from a group, like the city or a garden club, to maintain any plantings.

Those in attendance also learned of MnDOT’s plan to turn the current Highway 371 over to Crow Wing County, which would hope to turn back portions of the highway and some county roads to the city.

While the city would love that control, Adams said it would be very expensive, requiring another maintenance person and more snow removal equipment.

Tim Bray, county highway engineer, said the county has the same argument in wanting to turn the road back to the city.

Those discussions still must take place.

Adams said working together is important.

“I think the whole thing now is to work together as a community, as a group, to work together with MnDOT so we can get the best out of that.”

Lelwica added: “The goal is to keep the community as vibrant as possible, and we’ll need MnDOT’s help with that.”

“Working together we can accomplish more than as individuals,” Hallgren said.

In the resident portion of the meeting, Hugh Wooldridge of Jenkins reiterated that visibility will be important for the sake of the community.

“The supermarket and gas stations won’t get as much traffic, so the visibility of town itself will be important to get people to want to come into Pequot,” he said.