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Pequot Lakes: Doing business with a highway bypass

Motorists traveling south on Highway 371 in Pequot Lakes are reminded they can still exit to get into town. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal1 / 5
Dean Brandt (right), owner of Expressions Shoe Center on Main Street in Pequot Lakes, said he's having a record year of business. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal 2 / 5
This community sign, about a mile south of the County State Aid Highway 11 exit, encourages northbound motorists to visit Pequot Lakes. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal 3 / 5
People wait in line at Lakes Latte on Government Drive in downtown Pequot Lakes. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal 4 / 5
Government Drive in downtown Pequot Lakes is busy on a Friday afternoon in August. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal 5 / 5

After nearly a full year with no major road construction and the four-lane Highway 371 bypass fully open, some Pequot Lakes businesses say people are slowly starting to find them again.

A community sign along the highway with both north- and south-facing sides just went up to point motorists in the direction of downtown, and businesses are optimistic that will help people remember to exit to visit Pequot Lakes.

"We are recapturing some of the business we lost. We're definitely on the upswing from last year," said Greg Larson, manager of SuperAmerica Express in the Oasis Center on the former two-lane Highway 371, now called Patriot Avenue. "It's not what it was, but it's certainly heading in the right direction."

Lisa Kaneski, co-owner of Dairy Queen in the Oasis Center, agreed business is starting to stabilize.

"When the bypass opened up, our sales went down by about 10 percent," Kaneski said in an email. "That doesn't sound like that much, but I feel like we lost that incremental business during our off hours, so it made the store a little trickier to staff correctly. This summer, we have regained about 4 percent of that."

And Corky Ledoux, manager of Pequot Lakes Supervalu on that same stretch of Patriot Avenue, also said business is better this year than last year. Business grew every year since the store opened, then stopped with the road construction and change in traffic patterns. But Ledoux said business is still good.

"Customers are slowly finding us back," he said. "We're still a thriving business in the community."

Pequot Lakes endured two summer seasons of highway construction that included detours that disrupted businesses and residents as the $50 million, 9.5-mile four-lane highway was built east of downtown. When it fully opened early last October, it took with it traffic that used to flow right through downtown Pequot Lakes.

Despite that, some Pequot Lakes businesses are having banner years.

"We've been up," said Beau Hanson, who owns Lucky's restaurant on Government Drive with his wife, Amy, who also agreed the restaurant has been busier than usual.

"We're not really a driveby. We're a destination," Beau said.

Expressions Shoe Center, in its 20th year on Main Street/County State Aid Highway 11, also is having a record year because it is a destination, said owner Dean Brandt.

"A high percentage of local residents (and repeat clientele) know Expressions Shoe Center is in Pequot Lakes, so they come here regardless of road conditions," Brandt said, noting the only issue his business had was when the highway overpass bridge was built on CSAH 11, diverting traffic coming from Breezy Point south and away from downtown. "That cost $50,000 in sales."

Brandt said Pequot Lakes lost business from tourists and others staying at Breezy Point Resort who used to go right through Pequot Lakes to get to Highway 371.

"So basically since the road opened, it hasn't cost me any business. People have found me," he said. "We're having a record year this year. We had a record year last year."

Similarly, Deb Sommers, owner of Seeds of Sommer in the Jack Pine Center on Main Street, said her store is a destination and road construction never hurt her business. In fact, now that Main Street/CSAH 11 is a main road into Pequot Lakes from the highway, Sommers said she is seeing new customers.

"For me, it's a thumbs up," Sommers said.

The Celtic Cottage, also on Main Street, is also seeing new customers who didn't realize the store existed, said owner Susan McGuire-Hardy.

"I like now because this is now the main entrance into Pequot, so they're coming by our store now," she said, noting she is amazed at how many people didn't know her store was there, or that Pequot Lakes had an American Legion or a full-service flower shop. "I look at this as a plus."

Business at the Hungry Loon Cafe in the Jack Pine Center is up 25 to 30 percent, said Dave Sjoblad, who attributed that to being on the main drag and, like Expressions Shoe Center, to advertising.

While the opening of the highway bypass hurt Latte Da Coffee & Gifts, on Rasmussen Road/County Road 112, during the off-season when people no longer stopped for coffee on their way to work, owner Sarah Blaeser said this summer has been amazing and the best since she opened six years ago.

"Tourists are finding us. They're spending some money," she said.

Next door to Blaeser, Lynne Clement, owner of the Wild Daisy, said the number of people in town has declined so business is a bit slower, but she is optimistic Pequot Lakes will bounce back. It will just take time.

"Once people find us again and once they come back into town, I think we'll recover. I think it's going to be a slower process than people were hoping for," Clement said, adding she has had positive feedback from people about less traffic in town, making it safer.

"The new billboard is wonderful," she added. "I think it will definitely help."

Other businesses still report that business is down, including Tara Bundy, owner of Leslie's clothing store on Rasmussen Road, and Justin Bolz-Andolshek, owner of Lakes Latte on Government Drive.

"I think because of the bypass, a lot of businesses are missing people who used to have to drive through to Breezy Point and now don't have to drive by," Bundy said, noting those motorists used to have to stop at the four-way stop right outside her store.

Bolz-Andolshek said Lakes Latte saw a significant adverse impact in both sales and customer traffic last summer, and while that stabilized this year, the business is still seeing a dip and is not back to where it could have been. He said new customers are making up a smaller percentage of sales compared to the past.

"It's definitely hurting. It's definitely concerning," he said, noting Lakes Latte is still open the same hours with the same offerings.

On the other side of the former two-lane Highway 371 (Patriot Avenue), Lorie Niskanen, owner of Twin Pines Trading Post on Front Street, said roadwork hurt her business. She had been wanting to move to Jenkins, and now has a storefront on the highway there. She is still deciding what to do with the Pequot Lakes location.

The longtime owner of Weise Crafts & Variety, also on Front Street, said numbers were up a bit in July, but she agreed new customers aren't driving by and stopping like they did previously. Caroljean Weise said most of her customers are regulars.

"A lot of loyal people that shop the small-town businesses, they like the smaller communities to shop in," Weise said, adding she has noticed more communication among businesses to send shoppers to each other's stores.

Farther north, the owners of Castoffs Secondhand on Jokela Drive just off Patriot Avenue said they have lost a large chunk of their driveby traffic.

"There is no traffic," said Dana Firkus, who owns the business with his wife, Kim.

Luckily, the business has been there for 16 years so most - though not all - regular customers have found Castoffs. If they were just starting the business, they wouldn't make it, the couple said.

"We're so thankful we have our repeat people," Kim said.

Some business owners have heard from motorists who find it hard to get to downtown Pequot Lakes, though that is lessening. Bolz-Andolshek said the community sign on the highway will help keep downtown on motorists' radar, but he has heard customers say that while driving to their cabin they unknowingly passed Pequot Lakes.

Businesses hope it's a learning curve.

"I think even our own residents are finally settling into how they get in and out of town," Dairy Queen's Kaneski said. "People that have cabins around Pequot have obviously re-learned and been able to find us. I feel like the vacationers that are traveling 'through' Pequot to another destination are no longer stopping.

"We actually had something being delivered by a person that lives in our own area. He said, 'OK, I haven't really been into Pequot much since the bypass. How should I get to you from the highway?' This indicated to me that we probably have many people in our area that don't drive into our town anymore," she said. "For instance, if you live in Pine River, but typically travel to Brainerd, you just don't stop in Pequot anymore."

Kaneski is excited about the community sign.

"It shows our town with the (bobber) water tower that everyone thinks of and remembers. I feel like it will jog people's memories of where they 'used' to stop, and they will know where to turn to get into town," she said. "I am hopeful that it will help people see that Pequot is still here and a good place to stop or stay."

Most people - residents, tourists and businesses - have noticed the lighter traffic in town. Larson, of SuperAmerica Express, said people are getting acclimated to the new normal, and he and others admitted it's nice to be able to get onto Patriot Avenue without darting into heavy traffic.

"You know, life after the bypass, I was concerned. But I'm excited in the direction it's heading," Larson said. "The new normal is busy Pequot, not crazy Pequot. And that's what it was."