Economic impact of new bridge: Time will tell

Workers put up road blocks on the lift bridge in Stillwater around 9 p.m. Aug. 2, ending the flow of commuter traffic through downtown Stillwater. (Photo by Alicia Lebens)

As the St. Croix Valley celebrates the completion of the St. Croix Crossing bridge, the communities are already thinking of the next big question — how will a change in traffic affect local businesses?

While a major congestion problem in downtown Stillwater is being solved by moving traffic away from the aging, one-lane lift bridge, Stillwater’s community development director Bill Turnblad said the effects of the bridge will be seen in more than just downtown.

“There are two different questions: How will the opening of the new bridge affect downtown Stillwater, and how will it affect the rest of the city and the surrounding area?” Turnblad said. “The second is easier to describe.”

The most obvious positive impact will be to Wisconsin residents who work in Minnesota and drive through Stillwater twice a day, often contending with slow-downs and backups as they approach the lift bridge.

“When you measure a real estate market area, you measure in drive time and not actual miles,” Turnblad said. “With a direct connection now to western Wisconsin, you could be saving 10, 15, 20 minutes of driving time. That opens up western Wisconsin.”

Turnblad pointed to Lakeview Hospital as a business that is making investments due to the positive impacts of the bridge.

In May, Lakeview Hospital signed a purchase agreement for 68 acres of land at the northeast corner of the intersection of Highway 36 and Manning Avenue in Stillwater, with plans for a potential new hospital building and medical campus.

On June 6, hospital representatives presented the concept of a medical campus at the site to the Stillwater City Council, including a 150,000-square-foot hospital building, with a 50,000-square-foot lower level. It also includes a bed tower with three floors, for a total of 96 beds, and a 25,000-square-foot ambulatory surgical center (outpatient surgery).

In addition to the hospital, the concept plan suggests complementary development on the western portion of the site, such as senior housing or other health and wellness or commercial uses. The hospital expects increased demand for services as the population of the East Metro grows, and as western Wisconsin sees residential growth due to the completion of the new bridge over the St. Croix.

Across Highway 36 in Oak Park Heights, new construction projects have added to the commercial base of the city in recent years.

“In the city we’re seeing a lot of building going on,” said Oak Park Heights mayor Mary McComber. “Potbelly, Kwik Trip … for a city that’s almost at full build out, there’s a lot going on.”

Brian Zeller, a realtor for Greystone Commercial, works with commercial property on both sides of river and expects the Highway 36 corridor through Oak Park Heights and Stillwater to continue as a regional shopping and commercial center as Wisconsin opens up.

“Since there is no sewer and water available close on the Wisconsin side, that will limit the overall density of residential and will further limit what could be built commercial,” Zeller said. “I don’t believe we will see a lot of commercial development on the Wisconsin side and, frankly, I think the majority of the retail built in Oak Park Heights anticipated increased traffic from the new bridge.”

While cities like Somerset and New Richmond in Wisconsin may see an increased demand for their commercial property, Zeller said he see a large demand for more large-lot, single-family residential development.

What is still a question for Oak Park Heights, Stillwater and the surrounding cities is the impact on the retail and food service industries as traffic patterns change and “drive-through” traffic is redirected.

“What goes on in downtown Stillwater with the changed traffic patterns is a bit harder to determine, but we are optimistic,” Turnblad said. “When the lift bridge was closed for an extended period of time, it was positive. Pass-through traffic is not going and stopping.”

Due to a decrease in traffic, Turnblad said he expects any reduction in business downtown from the “pass-by” traffic will be “greatly offset by an uptick in attractiveness” for visitors and locals without the commuters during rush hour.

“Metro workers who live in Wisconsin may not be in such a rush to get home,” said Robin Anthony, executive director for the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce. “I see them stopping for a bit to eat and maybe a little shopping here and there now that they don’t have to rush to beat the bridge or sit in traffic.”

Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski said the lift bridge closure marked the day residents “get our downtown back.”

While many remain positive about the future, knowing the full economic impact is a waiting game, said McComber.

“We don’t know how it’s going to play out,” McComber said. “I would like to hope it’s a benefit, but time will tell.”

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]