AITKIN -- Call it an extreme makeover for downtown Aitkin.
A major downtown construction project has taken over Minnesota Avenue, the city's main street lined with thriving businesses. The project includes new sidewalks, shade trees and decorative lights. Even with recent rains, the project is about three weeks ahead of schedule with two construction crews working. Completion is expected the first or second week of August.
Rebecca Jones, owner of Gramma's Pantry, a natural food store on Minnesota Avenue, was upbeat about the road construction. She said the rainy weather has been a bigger issue for business rather than the road construction.
Jones opened her store 20 years ago and was involved in efforts then about the community's look.
"This little bit of inconvenience is worth waiting for after 20 years time," she said, adding the businesses were well-prepared. They decorated back entrances and signs help direct people to accesses. She said planning for the roadwork made a big difference. And Jones said the tourist traffic is heaviest in July and August when much of the work should be completed.
One of Jones' customers, Beverly Swenson, a Mille Lacs Lake area resident, was in last week looking for ingredients for homemade bread.
"It doesn't bother me but I'm easygoing," Swenson said of the road construction. "Life's too short to be complaining."
A Minnesota Avenue businessman who asked not to be identified watched the earth-moving equipment in the street. He said he took a more practical approach to the streetscape plans. He said the lights they had worked fine and if he wanted to see a tree he'd go to a park. The construction work has had a negative impact on his business, he said.
The work extends sidewalk-to-sidewalk with fencing separating the walkway from the roadwork. Shoppers were navigating the paths and parking on side streets Friday afternoon.
Katie Bladet, owner of The Moose's Caboose on Minnesota Avenue, closed her north woods decor shop during the week except by appointment and is now open Saturdays only because of the construction. She has used the time to prepare handmade crafts for a busy schedule of weekend shows and to fit in a little fishing.
"It can't help but hurt the business when everything is disrupted but the end result will be wonderful," Bladet said. "The end result is going to be better business for everybody. Hopefully, people are saving their money and they'll come shopping when everything is done."
John Welle, Aitkin County engineer, is the construction project engineer as well.
"The community has been very supportive because of a good rate of progress," Welle said.
North of the stoplight, the work involves a complete reconstruction of city utilities beneath the road, as well as the road itself along with sidewalks and curb and gutter. Beyond infrastructure, residents and visitors to Aitkin are more likely to be struck by the new streetscape, which will radiate from the Minnesota Avenue and Highway 210 intersection.
Welle said access has been maintained to all the businesses, which have been promoting the construction as the city's extreme makeover as a way to draw people to see the construction. Parking is a bit of a challenge without the Minnesota Avenue street parking options but Welle said parking is available on side streets.
The $1.7 million construction project is a combination of city of Aitkin, Aitkin County and state and federal highway dollars.
RENEE RICHARDSON can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.
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