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Brainerd businesses brace for downtown street project

Motorists wait at a stop light on South Sixth Street in 2015. The street is scheduled for a complete overhaul. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch file photo1 / 2
Joe Cameron (right), Minnesota Department of Transportation construction project manager for the Brainerd South Sixth Street project, talks to contractors Monday at an information meeting at the Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch 2 / 2

For 123 businesses within the "critical area" in downtown Brainerd—or, businesses situated near the South Sixth Street construction project—it looks to be a bumpy road ahead during the summer months.

The head of the vital roadway's overhaul in south Brainerd, Minnesota Department of Transportation Construction Project Manager Joe Cameron, made himself available at a meet-and-greet Monday afternoon in the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce building. He said local business owners are anxious, some to the point they fear their enterprises won't survive the inevitable street closures and redirected traffic come April.

"When they first hear about it, their initial reaction is that, 'I'm going out of business,'" Cameron said, adding that he'd heard from three business owners that day who worried the project may bankrupt them. "It's not that bad for them, but they all panic because they've heard the horror stories. We can generally make it through. That's what I'm trying to do with this meeting, get my name, my number, my email address out there. ... If somebody is available to talk about your problem, you're going to be a lot happier."

Cameron said much of preparation process comes down to the areas addressed with each phase of construction and identifying the detour routes attached to each phase, so as to lessen the impact of street closures.

Beyond that, weather is the main wildcard factor, Cameron noted. With the project scheduled to start April 16, frozen ground may push back construction until warm temperatures can make the soil more malleable—a very real possibility, Cameron said, in light of the fluctuating temperatures and heavy snowfall Brainerd experienced in recent weeks. As water leaks down into the soil during warmer days, then refreezes during cold stretches, it fills empty pockets with ice and frost. If that's the case, the project may have to wait until May.

"Who knows? Right now, they're talking it's going to warm up," Cameron said. "If it warms and stays warm until April, we'll be there."

During the summer months, rainfall may also slow construction, he added, sometimes stalling up to a week to drain holes or cavities created by crews.

Randy Moores and Lorie Brown—owners of businesses in the critical area, which is designated between Fifth to Eighth streets, and from Washington to Joseph streets—said they've seen projects like this before. There's little a business owner can do, except weather the period of upheaval and hope for the best.

"There's really nothing you can do," said Moores, the owner of Spin Cycle Coin Laundry. "It doesn't pay running ads, running coupons, because once the barricades are up, no one's going to fight it coming downtown. Your regular customers will. Hopefully, they make it as simple as possible."

Brown, the owner of Coco Moon, a coffee bar and gift shop on the corner of Laurel and South Sixth streets, said she may draw on previous strategies she employed during the Laurel Street project—even if that means pitching perks to the construction crews themselves.

"We just had anything to bring customers in, like Tuesday was trivia day, we had Hard Hat Day was a discount for anyone with a hard hat," Brown said, giving a shrug. She noted parking as a preeminent issue in the discussion. "You just do what you can. It will cut into your bottom dollar. The big thing I'm concerned about it how are they going to keep the traffic flowing downtown? Everything comes down to how they do the detours."

"Just wait it out. If you have to cut staff, you do what you have to do," added Moores, who also owns the building where Coco Moon is housed. "Cut hours, we've done that in the past. I just can't wait until it's over."

The South Sixth Street construction project entails a systematic reconstruction of both the surface infrastructure—which includes the street pavement, sidewalks, as well as road signs and LED signal lights—and the underground sewer and water systems. The city looks to improve all side street and driveway connections, upgrade utilities, upgrade signal systems, implement more pedestrian accessibility such as wider sidewalks and approach ramps, as well as install new signs and street light fixtures. The roadway itself is expected to be expanded, with as many as five lanes in certain portions.

Estimated to take place between April to early or mid-October, the project will involve all of Business Highway 371/South Sixth Street from the intersection of Washington Street southward to the intersection of Joseph Street. In that time frame, there will be a number of road closures and established detours. These listings are tentative:

• The road from Joseph Street to Oak Street will be closed from April to mid-June. Detours will use Industrial Park Road, County Highway 45, Oak Street and South Eighth Street. Cross traffic will be open at Willow Street and Vine Street.

• The road from Willow Street to Highway 210 from mid-June through mid-August. Detours include Industrial Park Road, County Highway 45, Oak Street and South Eighth Street. Cross traffic will be maintained downtown.

• The road from Willow Street to Highway 210 will be closed for the Fourth of July Brainerd Lakes Celebration July 1-5. Detours include Industrial Park Road, County Highway 45, Oak Street and South Eighth Street. Cross traffic will be open to motorists and pedestrians through intersections downtown.

• The road from Pine Street through Highway 210 will be closed from mid-August to early October. Detours will use Quince Street and South Eighth Street. Cross traffic will be maintained downtown.

• A truck route will be assigned along Industrial Park Road, County Road 117, Highway 25 and Highway 210 during the duration of the project from April to mid-October.

Cameron, a seasoned veteran with more than a half-century's worth of construction experience working for MnDOT and a self-described specialist in city initiatives, said the South Sixth Street project is a necessary hardship, though businesses will benefit from the expertise and foresight of crews tasked with overhauling downtown Brainerd's most vital artery.

"As I keep telling people: We have to do this," Cameron said. "But we've done it before and we know how to do it in the least inconvenient way possible."