PEQUOT LAKES -- A proposed Highway 371 improvement project in Pequot Lakes has fueled unusual interest in the 2003 Pequot Lakes-Breezy Point Chamber of Commerce Board election.
Six candidates are vying for one of three open seats, which expire Sept. 30. Terms expiring are those of chamber president Ryan Buell, and board members Judy Marsh and Steve Qualley. Buell is the only incumbent who is seeking another term. Those nominated for a seat are Bernice Rohde and Shelley Narveson. They are being challenged by Mat Johnson, Tonya Willim and George Johnson.
The race will be decided by a vote of the chamber members. Members received a mail-in ballot. There are about 200 members.
The chamber meets at 7 p.m. today at the Breezy Point Resort Convention Center.
Buell, who moved to Pequot Lakes in 1999, has served one term on the chamber. He said he was asked to run for another term. Buell said Qualley and Marsh chose not to run again.
Buell said it is common to have one or more persons who petitions to be on the board. This year there were three, which is unusual, he said.
"This is all volunteer work and there is no pay," said Buell. "It is a big commitment."
Business owners Mat Johnson, Tonya Willim and George Johnson, all petitioned to be on the chamber board. They said the main reason they want to serve on the board is to address concerns about a possible Highway 371 bypass of Pequot Lakes.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation is conducting an Environmental Impact Statement of the area. It is looking at two options for Highway 371 from Nisswa to Pine River -- a bypass to the east of Pequot Lakes or to widen the existing highway through the towns of Pequot Lakes, Jenkins and Pine River. MnDOT began its study of the highway to improve traffic flow and safety. The highway is expected to double its traffic flow by 2030.
MnDOT plans to complete the EIS in December. The project could begin in 2008.
Mat Johnson, spokesman of Citizens for the Preservation of Pequot, a group that consists of Pequot Lakes business owners, said they decided to form the group so they could have an active voice in the community about the Highway 371 project. They also got together because "they were pretty hot" about the chamber's stance on the highway project.
Buell said the chamber decided not to take a position on the highway project at this time because it felt an even split between the members on whether they supported the bypass concept or the widening of the existing highway in town.
He also said the chamber is a nonpartisan group and should stay out of any political issues.
"We are an information center," he said. "We (the chamber) are here to promote commerce and promote the communities. It does not matter where the road goes, we are here to promote businesses and we will continue to do that."
Johnson said, "The chamber is the voice of the businesses and they need to do their job. That is why we pay our dues. The businesses asked me to run (for the chamber board). Someone had to fall on the sword.
"I did not only run because of Highway 371. I am interested in doing more marketing here and looking at how the finances are used."
Johnson said, "All businesses know location, location, location is the key. Being on the highway is free marketing. Highway 371 is an artery to this area and if they divert the traffic behind the businesses it will hurt us.
"I think the bypass will drive a lot of us out of business. As a group we grow together and as a group we will also fall together."
Vice president of the chamber, Joe Bergquist of Northland Embroidery and Screenprinting, said both options for the highway make sense to him.
"I personally lean toward going through town, but then I look at the traffic on County Road 11," he said. "I don't think the bypass would detriment the city. It is all about how the chamber responds to it. The highway will not make or break us."
Pequot Lakes Mayor Cathy Malecha said the city council has not discussed the proposed Highway 371 project and is waiting for MnDOT to complete the EIS.
To learn more about the Highway 371 project, the Nisswa Chamber of Commerce will host a meeting 7 p.m. Sept. 24 at the Nisswa Community Center.
Tony Hughes, MnDOT District 3 project manager, will information about the project.
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