PINE RIVER -- With traffic between Nisswa and Pine River along Highway 371 expected to double by 2030, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is already looking for ways to improve traffic flow and safety.
But residents and business owners in Pequot Lakes, Jenkins and Pine River are concerned that bypasses might dry up their towns' economies.
"Everyone agrees that the problem needs to be addressed, but there are varying opinions on how to do it," said MnDOT project manager Anthony Hughes. "Unfortunately, we can't avoid the fact that there's always someone who is adversely impacted."
A presentation by MnDOT Tuesday night at Pine River-Backus High School drew about 60 residents. The next meetings will be 5 and 7:30 p.m. April 24 at Pequot Lakes High School, where Nisswa and Pequot Lakes traffic will be discussed. MnDOT hopes to have an Environmental Impact Statement prepared by late summer, with the project scheduled for 2008.
Two main options were discussed at the Pine River meeting: A bypass on the west side of town or a widening of the current highway through town.
Pine River residents and business owners voiced concerns over both options, with most favoring an expansion of the current highway rather than a bypass. Business owners feared a bypass would cut into their customer base of travelers.
"As a business owner, I need tourists and the everyday guy going through town," said Bill Johnson, 64, who recently invested $1 million in the gas stations he owns in Pine River and Pequot Lakes. "If they build a bypass, I could be working for the rest of my life."
His wife and co-owner, Carol Johnson, 61, believes that although more stoplights will need to be added downtown as traffic increases, it's preferable to a bypass.
"There seems to be a thing to dry up the little towns and just send the traffic through the big cities," she said.
Dean Johnson, 38, owner of Ultimate Liquors in Pine River, believes bypassing small towns hurts Minnesota as a whole.
"I don't know if they considered the impact of going around cities, what the state would lose in sales and income tax," he said. "People don't just buy what they need, there are impulse buyers."
Under both options, some residents would have to vacate their homes and property. With the through-town proposal, the curb would hold on the east with the highway expanding to the west. Depending on the number of lanes, it could expand anywhere from 100 to 300 feet.
"I'd rather give up some of my yard than have a bypass. There would be worse noise with a bypass and I fear the town would die," said Barb Brezinsky, 58, who lives near a proposed interchange site for the bypass.
Some took a hard-line stance against the proposed expansion. A Pine River man who lives on the west side of Highway 371 told a MnDOT official, "I plan on dying on that property. I'm not moving."
Other residents are willing to negotiate with MnDOT. Jerry Fuhrer, 40, works in real estate and owns two houses on the proposed bypass route, including his place of residence.
"Several houses would be wiped out, but that's fine if they negotiate a fair market value with me," he said.
Although the bypass would run directly through his property in Wilson Township, Art Schmidt, 67, said, "I'm not set one way or another."
Also Tuesday, MnDOT held a meeting in Jenkins to discuss a possible bypass there.
"I don't think it will kill the town," said Jenkins resident John Niskanen, 40, who runs a cabinet shop out of his home on Highway 371. "A lot of the Upper Whitefish businesses won't be hurt if they go with the west bypass. I think it would give the town room to grow."
For through-town widening of the highway in Pine River, MnDOT presented a variety of configurations. Several residents favored a three-lane setup similar to what Pequot Lakes has, with a center lane for left turns and right-turn lanes leading to businesses on the east side of Highway 371. Hiniker cited improved safety and carrying capacity.
An expansion of the current highway would force the relocation of the Paul Bunyan Trail. A bypass would impact wetlands on the western edge of town.
Chris Hiniker, a representative of MnDOT's consulting firm, said choosing the right highway option for a community is always complicated, because the market forces of every town are different.
"There are tradeoffs," Hiniker said. "With a bypass, we have greater access control and can move more traffic. But the bypass affects business, so we have to balance against those costs."
Purchase of the right-of-way where the highway will be constructed/expanded is planned for 2008, with construction to follow in 2010.
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