Bridge casts shadow at forum

Oak Park Heights candidates address project, city’s future

Gazette photos by Erik Sandin
Liz Nordling, left, of the League of Women Voters explains forum rules to Oak Park Heights mayoral and council candidates Mayor David Beaudet, far right, Mary McComber, Chuck Dougherty, Mike Liljegren and Mike Runk Wednesday evening at Boutwells Landing Town Hall.

OAK PARK HEIGHTS — Construction hasn’t started on the St. Croix River Bridge, but the project cast a big shadow over an Oak Park Heights mayoral and city council forum Wednesday evening at the Boutwells Landing Town Hall.

The first two audience questions candidates addressed dealt with the bridge. And the project was frequently mentioned in reference to other questions from a small, but interested audience.

City mayoral candidates incumbent David Beaudet and challenger Mary McComber, incumbent Councilman Mike Runk and council hopefuls Chuck Doughtery and Mike Liljegren attended the forum sponsored by Boutwells’ Community Action Group and the League of Women Voters for the St. Croix Valley.

Oak Park Heights’ voters will select two council members from among Runk, Dougherty and Liljegren.

The only surprise of the evening came when forum moderator Liz Nordling announced that a fourth council candidate, Larry Viers, told forum organizers that he was withdrawing from the race.

After their opening statements, the five candidates were asked if they would do anything to hinder the St. Croix bridge project.

McComber said that future councils must work as a team and with Washington County and Stillwater on bridge construction-related issues. She added that she would be “very involved” in looking out for the city’s best interests and work for the best outcome for the city.

Beaudet, a bridge opponent, acknowledged that the council made its decision on the project.

“Ninety-nine percent of the decision has been made by the council,” he said. “The bridge decision by the city council is done. I’ve moved on.”

And while Beaudet said some bridge-related issues have not been resolved, he will work with the council on further negotiations with the state Department of Transportation.

“I would not see myself as a hindrance to a project like that,” Liljegren said.

“I would not hinder this project at all. Now is the time to sit down on this project and get the details worked out,” Dougherty said.

“I would not be in a situation to hinder the project,” Runk said. He added that he would represent Oak Park Heights residents in future talks with MnDOT.

“There are certain issues we have to guarantee our citizens,” Runk said.

Beaudet defended his 2011 decision to veto a boring test permit MnDOT requested because he said granting the permit would have violated the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act which protects the St. Croix River.

“If we want to protect the river, we have to obey the law,” he said.

Beaudet also said his veto of the test boring permit did not delay the bridge project. McComber and Runk quickly criticized Beaudet’s claim.

“Every time there’s a delay on this bridge, the price goes higher and higher,” she said.

“The test borings was a way to delay the project. The entire reason for your decision was to delay the project,” Runk said.

He added that the council likely would have approved the test-boring permit had the issue been brought to the group.

“The council would have given permission,” he said.

Dougherty and Liljegren cited the boring permit issue as a sign of “dysfunction” between the Beaudet and the council.

“I think it’s a good project. It’s time to get the bridge built and get it going,” Doughtery said.

Beaudet countered by noting that since the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, 14 bridges have been constructed on the St. Croix River without a Congressional waiver from the act similar to what was granted to the St. Croix bridge.

“No effort was made to protect the riverway,” he said.

“We looked at many options and corridors. This was the option agreed upon by the stakeholders,” McComber said.

The remainder of the forum focused on economic issues the city faces. And the bridge and approach work on Minnesota 36 came up several times, with candidates noting that uncertainty about the projects is affecting the city’s economic outlook.

“Part of the problem with empty storefronts is the uncertainty over Highway 36 and the bridge,” McComber said.

“Uncertainty is not a good thing,” Dougherty added. “We’ve been living with uncertainty over Highway 36 and the bridge too long.”

“I think the majority of it is the economy. It’s tough for small businesses. The money is not there,” Liljegren said.

Runk and Beaudet pointed to council decisions made to help businesses. The mayor said keeping property taxes and city fees reasonable helps businesses.

“We’ve tried to provide for our businesses. We’ve changed our sign ordinance to give our businesses more visibility,” he said.

But several candidates admitted that it will be hard for Oak Park Heights to compete with Wisconsin for businesses and their jobs once bridge construction begins.

“We’re going to lose a lot of those. It would be nice to bring those jobs here,” Liljegren said.

“It’s a tough issue for any city,” Doughterty said. “It’s going to be tough going through these changes.”

“We do have some fairly large holes,” Runk said. “But we have some attractive features.”

“Unfortunately, I see so many jobs going to Wisconsin,” McComber said. “I’d like to see Cold Stone Creamery come back. They went to Wisconsin and we like ice cream, too.”