PEQUOT LAKES - A consortium of organizations will join together as one voice to represent businesses impacted by the proposed four-lane expansion of Highway 371 through Pequot Lakes.
Members of the three organizations - Pequot Lakes Area Development Organization, Brainerd Lakes Area Chambers of Commerce and the Brainerd Lakes Area Development Corporation - met for two hours Thursday at Hunt Technologies offices to determine if there was consensus among participants to jointly work toward assessing and addressing the impacts of the highway project.
The answer from an overwhelming majority of the present was yes.
"The business community needs representation," said Curt Johnson, a commercial real estate broker in Pequot Lakes and a PLADO board member. "I think it's important we stay together, whether the highway goes through town, around town, whatever it is."
The study of expanding Highway 371 from two lanes to four lanes from Nisswa to Pine River was started by the Minnesota Department of Transportation in 2002. While MnDOT and the city of Pequot Lakes initially supported a highway route through the city, within the last year the Pequot Lakes City Council also has been studying a route that would have Highway 371 bypass the heart of the city to the east.
Breaking into small groups Thursday, the participants weighed the pros and cons of both alternatives. The benefits of having the highway continue to run through the city included business visibility and good access. The negatives included construction problems for businesses and safety issues with the expanded highway.
The benefits for a bypass included safety, less congestion and less interruption to businesses during construction. Negatives included financial impacts, loss of traffic and visibility for businesses and environmental concerns.
But participants were not asked to determine which route they preferred. The purpose of the meeting was to determine if businesses would have one voice in working with the city and MnDOT concerning the project.
"What's hurting this community right now is indecision," said Pat Smith, a Pequot Lakes banker and business owner. "If we could come to a decision one way or another, we may not like it, but it will allow businesses to start planning."
Chris Etzler, transportation coordinator with Region 5 Development Commission, attended the meeting as an observer and said the group should try to avoid indecision, which can result in negativity from community members.
"I think you're on the right track. They key to it is getting input from the community," Etzler said. "The more people you can bring together to make the decision is helpful."
There was concern from several of the participants that, by presenting a joint effort, they would be "stepping on the toes" of the Pequot Lakes City Council and Minnesota Department of Transportation.
City council member Dave Sjoblad said the group should give feedback to the council about downtown area improvements.
"That would be a better use, in my mind, for the energy of this group," Sjoblad said.
Other concerns expressed by meeting participants included lack of information about the project for business owners, what the impact of a joint effort would be and how individual needs will be addressed.
Possible actions determined by the members of the three groups present Thursday included checking with city businesses to see if they are interested in a joint effort, getting current information about the project to business owners for their review, finding ways to assist businesses affected by the potential project and participating in downtown planning.
Initiative Foundation President Kathy Gaalswyk, who facilitated the meeting, asked that all participants stay involved.
"The feeling of everyone in the room, the consensus among the three organizations, is that there needs to be action, there needs to be movement and the value of speaking with one voice," Gaalswyk said.
The project is currently scheduled for 2013, with construction starting as soon as the summer of 2012.
MATT ERICKSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5857.
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