PEQUOT LAKES - Bypass or not to bypass - that was the topic of three separate surveys conducted this fall by the Region Five Development Commission with Pequot Lakes residents, visitors and business owners.
The Pequot Lakes City Council learned the survey results about the proposed Highway 371 route at Monday's meeting and also heard from Brainerd Lakes Chamber representatives and Pequot Lakes School Superintendent Rick Linnell, who all recommended that the council endorse the through town option.
The Pequot Lakes City Council plans to make a decision at a Dec. 18 special meeting on whether to support a four-lane Highway 371 along its current path in Pequot Lakes or to support a four-mile bypass east of downtown.
On Monday, Cheryal Lee Hills, Region Five executive director, and Neil Linscheid, Region Five economic development director, presented survey findings to the council.
A community group in Pequot Lakes on Aug. 7 sought assistance from Region Five on obtaining additional information as it related to the proposed 371 construction project. Region Five conducted an intercept survey of 600 people in Pequot Lakes four days in August at five different locations. Survey questions used came from a collaborative effort involving the Pequot Lakes community. They also conducted a random phone survey of residents within the 56472 Zip code and surveys were mailed to more than 200 Pequot Lakes businesses.
The visitor survey found that most visitors to Pequot Lakes were female (59 percent) and were 46 years or older (68 percent). Thirty-seven percent were Pequot Lakes residents while 26 percent said they learned about the city through family and friends, 18 percent were seasonal residents while 14 percent learned about the city by driving through the town.
The top reasons why they said they liked Pequot Lakes were for the shopping (172 responses), small town (120 responses), the people (47 responses) and the lakes (41 responses).
The Pequot Lakes area resident survey involved sampling a list of 3,285 residents through phone interviews in October. A total of 306 phone surveys were completed. Of those, 44 percent of residents said they believed a bypass route would be better for the future of the city while 37 percent said the through town route and 19 percent had no opinion.
The business survey involved sending a mail survey to 207 businesses. Of those, 66 responses, or 32 percent, were returned in October. When asked which option for the Highway 317 expansion route would their business prefer, 22 respondents (35 percent) answered the bypass route while 34 respondents (55 percent) said the through town route and six respondents (10 percent) said it didn't matter to them. When asked what option was the best for the Pequot Lakes community, 25 respondents (40 percent) said the bypass route, 36 respondents (57 percent) said the through town route and two respondents (3.2 percent) said it didn't matter.
"I think the data in the report are valuable but it doesn't take into account all of the facts," said council member Jim Oraskovich.
Hills told the council that this information is just a piece of the larger puzzle. She said after spending more than 200 hours on this project, the overall consensus of people she talked to was that the council needed to make a decision and move forward.
"They're tired of the division and want to heal," said Hills.
The entire report will be available online later this week at the Region Five Web site, www.regionfive.org.
RuthAnn Hanson, Brainerd Lakes Chamber area director, told the council that the unanimous recommendation from the chamber's Pequot Lakes/Breezy Point advisory committee and the chamber's board of directors was for the through town option. She said they recognize that both options are not perfect but the through town route was preferred. She spoke about how the date is undetermined for the 371 construction project and could take place 15-20 years or more from now and it possibly might never happen. She said between then and now business development in Pequot Lakes will become stagnant and if Pequot Lakes is the only neighboring community that is bypassed then the business community will suffer from the lack of visibility. Also, Hanson said traffic levels would return to the current levels on existing Highway 371 by 2030 with a bypass so pedestrian safety issues won't be resolved with a bypass.
"This is a huge, critical, important decision," said Hanson.
Linnell told the council that the bypass proposal of Highway 371, with a lack of overpasses, would cause serious safety concerns for the school's parents, students, staff and visitors to and from the area schools. He said the more at-grade intersections, with increased traffic, traveling at speed limits in excess of 50 miles per hour are a recipe for disaster for students and staff. The district has 17 bus routes and most would have to cross the bypass once or twice a day, increasing the chances for serious and/or fatal accidents. The district buses about 1,200 students each day and have about 200-250 cars parked in the school lots each day, in addition to dozens and dozens of parents who drop and pick up their children at the schools.
Linnell said a through town route allows for a minimum of one controlled intersection which will help control traffic speed.
The council also heard from a few business owners and members of the chamber's Pequot Lakes/Breezy Point advisory committee.
Deb Hallbeck, a Sibley Station owner, said she originally believed a bypass was the best route but has since changed her mind. She said as she learned more information she believes waiting 15-20 years for a bypass would create uncertainty in the downtown business community.
"I know we need to look to the future but we live in the present," said Hallbeck.
Cindy Couture, owner of Salon Couture, said she's heard from her customers who worry about the empty storefronts in Pequot Lakes and the business turnover. She said what struck her about the Region Five survey of Pequot Lakes residents was that 93 percent said they did not attend the Oct. 25 community forum on the Highway 371 project.
In 2004, the city council passed a resolution supporting the four-lane Highway 371 along its current path in downtown Pequot Lakes, an alignment adopted as the preferred route by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. In 2006, the city council decided a four-mile bypass east of downtown should be studied. The project, an expansion from Nisswa to Pine River, was originally slated for construction in 2010 but now has a tentative construction date of 2015 or 2016. The estimated cost of the entire project is $90 million.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.
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