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Major road construction to affect U.S. 61 on North Shore.

Apr 21, 2018 09:16AM ● Published by Editor

By Kitty Mayo of Business North - April 19 2018


What makes or breaks a road construction project is the attitude of those in the middle of it. That’s a truth that Janelle Jones, president of the Two Harbors Area Chamber of Commerce (THACC), is bringing to bear on Minnesota’s notorious road construction season, and the fallout for fair weather tourists traveling up north.

“I cannot stress enough that the tone we set is going to resonate south, and we have to make sure everybody knows they are welcome and will be happy they came,” Jones said, despite the North Shore work planned for this summer.

With major road projects scheduled in Duluth and Two Harbors by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Jones knows that local business owners might have a high level of anxiety about how their bottom line might be hurt by slower traffic. However, she said that collaborating with all the stakeholders and maintaining an attitude of gratitude will make it all come out in the wash.

“We need to remember to thank MnDOT for coming to town. We needed this work, and we can figure it out,” Jones said.

That attitude has kept the lines of communication open with MnDOT, and effectively created a change in the construction schedule that will significantly ease the burden on mainstreet businesses.

MnDOT project engineer Brett Weybright said that after hearing the specific concerns of company owners expressed at meetings organized by the THACC, he was able to change the timing of certain aspects of the work.

“I looked back at the staging for the contractor, after feedback from businesses, and was able to tweak it a little bit and push back work directly in front of the majority of businesses until after their busiest time in July and August,” Weybright said.

Jones noted that well-tended dialog between businesses and MnDOT has resulted in economic relief. After Labor Day and the return to school, much of the weekday traffic dies down on the North Shore.

The effort to improve traffic flow through a town that lies on the well-worn path to Lake Superior’s North Shore, the city of Two Harbors will have to deal with slowed down traffic while improvements are being made.

The project

Altogether, the three work phases are proposed to start in mid-May and continue through October.

The project has three sections, with separate, though sometimes overlapping, time lines. 

• Heading out of town, Highway 61 will be down to one lane from May through October all the way to the Silver Creek tunnel as a direct entrance to the city’s campground is constructed, and mill and overlay is completed.

• Late July through early September will see the slowdown of traffic with construction at the primary intersection on the north end of Two Harbors.

• Originally proposed for July through mid-August, the section passing directly in front of the bulk of businesses has now been pushed out to after the first week in September. Parking will be limited, side streets will be closed at times, and some work will necessitate closing down to one lane.

Two Harbors Mayor Chris Swanson said the city’s working relationship with MnDOT is strong, and the department has been a very responsive partner thus far.

“We are happy MnDOT is working closely with us. This is going to cause a slowdown, but we are taking all the steps we can to lessen the impact for everyone in town,” he said.

Jones has given this whole scenario a lot of thought, and she is convinced that messaging and attitude are absolutely critical to keeping the summer and fall of 2018 in the black for tourism. For many businesses that THACC represents, tourist season is their lifeblood, the time of plenty that keeps the lean winter months from unbalancing the books. 

Jones has worked hard to help business owners understand the necessity of maintaining a can-do attitude, despite the very real inconveniences the construction is sure to cause.

She is also encouraging businesses to develop creative approaches throughout the tourist season to draw customers in, and reward them for making the extra effort to get around the much needed roadwork.

“We need this (road work), and so we need to embrace it, and we will be just fine,” Jones said.

It’s not just plain common sense that Jones is using to manage this situation. She has done her homework, meeting with and talking to people in other small Minnesota towns that have had to bear the brunt of road work just as they were anticipating some much needed economic relief via tourism.

“Everyone has shared with me their strategies for coping with this, and it is so clearly the message we send out that will have the biggest impact,” said Jones, adding in no uncertain terms, “The roads to the North Shore are open, Two Harbors is open for business.”

Communication

Going forward, Weybright and his MnDOT team will hold weekly meetings throughout the project to share details of the upcoming week’s scheduled work with business owners.

“We understand this is still going to be an impact, but we take that extremely seriously and are going to work as hard as we can to have it go quickly and smoothly,” Weybright said.

Nurturing a good working relationship with municipal entities is at the top of Beth Petrowske’s list for minimizing the impact on residents, visitors and businesses.

“It’s a short construction season, but we try to do everything in our power to lessen the effect by working around major festivals and events. But no matter what, people will be able to get to where they want to go,” said Petrowske, Public Affairs, MnDOT District l.

The nearly $4 million Two Harbor’s project is being funded by a combination of federal, state, county and city dollars.

Petrowske said that putting up extra signage will be a primary way that MnDOT will accommodate interrupted traffic to businesses, as well as providing detour maps where appropriate. They will also work with businesses to build off of MnDOT’s “How to thrive during road construction” program, which has practical suggestions for managing construction interruptions.

But most of all, Petrowske said it’s about timely communication.

“Each business thinks we can do something better, and we want to hear what it is. We do not know what the normal flow of pedestrian traffic is, and we want to know,” Petrowske said.

The injection of road construction workers into the scene is something she said can be a hidden benefit, with local restaurants, gas stations and potentially lodging gaining the businesses of those workers.

A big impact is expected for travelers coming into Duluth, with a trifecta of construction at the entryway to downtown. A three-year city project will have Superior Street under construction, with MnDOT working on the adjacent Mesaba Avenue this season, and the second year of the I-35 project ongoing.

While Petrowske admits it may not be an easy summer to get around in Duluth, she said MnDOT is spending $20,000 in radio commercials on Twin Cities’ stations to help tourists plan their trips.

“We’re telling people to come early and stay late, use our website for updates, and plan ahead to find other routes to get where you want to go,” she said.

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