There can be two schools of thought regarding the economic impact of a bypass that changes the traffic flow through a city.
You're either passed by or you gain accessibility.
Either way it means change.
Cities both north and south of Brainerd experienced the effects of a bypass years ago and shared many of the same apprehensions Brainerd and Baxter business owners may have felt. Times also have changed. Concerns about increased billboard advertising and aesthetics along the roadside may be more of an issue today than when the bypasses came to Bemidji and Little Falls.
Curt Eastlund, Minnesota Department of Transportation District 3 preliminary designer, said, "There is no correlation that (the bypass) will cause the economy to change." The benefit, he said, is that Brainerd may see more willingness from residents and visitors to go downtown because of the reduction in traffic.
"Little Falls had the same problem," said Gary Dirlam, MnDOT District 3 traffic engineer. "No one could get anywhere. Their (bypass) freed them up."
Bemidji's bypass arrived about 15 years ago. Lois Paris, Bemidji Chamber of Commerce executive director, said when the bypass came people in the downtown area were concerned. But overall, she said, it has not been an issue.
"I don't know that it really developed into a huge impact," Paris said.
There are more than 100 businesses in the downtown Bemidji area. "I think there was great concern, but they survived."
Paris said businesses adjusted and marketed differently. Downtown businesses were concerned that road signs identify the business route and that exits from the bypass be well marked. There are three exits from the bypass to Bemidji.
And downtown fought to keep county government offices downtown, as well as the library and banks in order to maintain a base.
"All those really added to keeping strengths," Paris said.
The downtown area went through a coordinated effort to transform itself, clean up and make an attractive presence. Paris said people traveling through an area are not going to take the time to stop when they are in a hurry whether the road goes through the city or around it.
"You work your strengths," Paris said.
Bill Batchelder, Bemidji Woolen Mills, is part of a family business that can trace its roots in downtown Bemidji through several generations. Batchelder recently traveled the bypass route around Brainerd and eastern sections of Baxter. He liked the view. And it made him think of a destination he avoided in the past because of traffic concerns -- downtown Brainerd.
"Over the long term I think it is going to be very positive," Batchelder said, adding people avoided Brainerd because the traffic was so horrific on weekends.
"Now I wanted to go back through Brainerd and stop at the restaurants," Batchelder said. "People that want to come downtown will find it easier to come downtown. You've got a percentage that is not going to stop either way."
Batchelder said traffic on Highway 371's business route should be a little lighter, but he noted that does not translate into dollars and cents.
"Heavy traffic flows don't always equate to better business," he said.
Bemidji saw a change from the heavy truck traffic that formerly used the road that went through the city. The traffic and grain trucks created safety concerns. Batchelder said there is always fear of lost business when the bypass becomes a reality. He said the fear is the same when the mall starts building away from the downtowns.
"Absolutely there was a concern that it would be a dead downtown," Batchelder said of Bemidji businesses. But Batchelder said the bypass had no economic impact on his business. "It was totally unfounded. The mall was a much greater concern for us downtown. ... You can end up with some really unique opportunities."
In Bemidji part of the response to the mall and the bypass, which arrived several years later, was a downtown revitalization with tree planting, more boutique type stores and unique restaurants with a varied menu. The downtown worked to become a destination and used the strength of the nearby lakefront. Change can create opportunities.
"That's what I see in the historic part of Brainerd and telling the historic part of Brainerd," Batchelder said. "I would say Bemidji is continually trying to invent new ways to attract people to downtown."
Batchelder said a group from Bemidji even came to Brainerd to look at the library when the idea of moving Bemidji's library away from downtown became an issue a few years ago. Downtown proponents also aggressively fought a plan to move the human services building from downtown to Highway 2.
They won. A $9 million building for county and state offices was erected on more than two city blocks, creating a campus-like system in one area. "That's really been a boon for us," Batchelder said. "That really feeds the restaurants downtown and the boutiques."
Batchelder said downtown Brainerd has many of the same opportunities.
Bemidji worked to create green space and is working on a bike path through the downtown area. The Downtown Development Authority, established about 25 years ago, works on parking issues, redevelopment and communication with the city of Bemidji.
"Without that organization the library would have been built outside of town," Batchelder said. The DDA helped develop downtown parking lots with annual $48 membership fees for parking, particularly for employees. Money earned has been used to buy older, less desirable properties and demolish them for new opportunities.
"We've added a tremendous amount of parking in the last few years and it goes back to the Downtown Development Authority," Batchelder said.
Bemidji is also taking advantage of the restoration of the Great Northern Railway depot that was slated for demolition about 10 years ago and now will open in October as the Beltrami County Historical Society Museum.
"There are a lot of people in the Brainerd area and they'd come downtown if there were things to do," Batchelder said.
To the south, Little Falls experienced an abrupt change as the bypass moved traffic away from the city's center in the mid-1970s.
"It was a major impact from cars going right through the downtown for restaurants and service stations," said Cathy VanRisseghem, Little Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau director and past director of the main street program. "It presented a whole new thought process -- how to get those people to come back downtown."
VanRisseghem said the change was a hit for the downtown area but she had no idea how much money was lost. Some businesses did not recover, with service stations and restaurants taking the brunt of the losses.
"That was a massive amount of people coming through Little Falls every day," VanRisseghem said, noting the traffic that Highways 371 and 10 carried through the city. Other businesses stayed. And the work is continuing to develop Little Falls as a tourist destination.
Redeveloping the downtown and making it economically successful is an issue Little Falls is still working to accomplish.
"We have to be more creative and market the community as a destination. We are never going to have that massive amount of people coming through again," she said.
VanRisseghem said Brainerd has an established tourism base with people who are coming to the area to spend a weekend. "It's not like they are driving by," she said. "Brainerd is a destination. They just need to get creative and work together to get people to come back downtown and shop in some of their stores. Some of the drive-by traffic they are going to lose. Others will be drawn with good service and the like."
VanRisseghem said she could not answer whether the bypass was good or bad. As a child who used to try to cross the streets on a weekend and an adult trying to make a living, VanRisseghem can wear both hats.
As a traveler heading to the Nisswa area quite a bit, VanRisseghem said the bypass has been wonderful and has saved about 15 minutes of travel time.
But VanRisseghem said she is not sure people are deterred as much by higher traffic. That was an early argument for the bypass in Little Falls, too. VanRisseghem said traffic in Stillwater on weekends is unbelievable and people are willing to face it.
"If every community can attain that it is going to be a destination, it is going to be an attraction.
"Brainerd has some wonderful history and don't blow their horn on it. It is an attraction and market just close by and in their yard and not even the back yard."
Downtown Brainerd businesses and the city are talking with MnDOT about changing the signs for the Business Highway 371 to a sign that says historic downtown.
"I think it's going to take more and more pressure off downtown so people will come downtown and see the historic downtown that is under way," Nila Patrick, former president of the Brainerd Downtown Business Association and current president of Brainerd Restoration, said of the bypass.
"I don't feel like it's hurting us downtown at all. Local people won't feel like they are pushed through the streets of downtown. We need to make it attractive and safe and interesting to them."
Patrick said the wheel is turning to work for beautification projects and plans for downtown restoration that include ideas for a historic theme, old-fashioned lamp posts, grant money to restore buildings and add ornamental facades, flower planters or hanging baskets and even piped in music.
"I think we are following suit with what some of the larger cities are doing," she said. "I just look for it to be a positive thing."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.