In the year since the St. Croix River bridge opened, local leaders say crash rates are way down near the Stillwater Lift Bridge it replaced, there is no more bottleneck of traffic in downtown Stillwater, and long-delayed city improvements are back on.
Tourists and locals alike are visiting downtown Stillwater more often since Main Street is no longer choked by a string of vehicles waiting to cross the Lift Bridge into Wisconsin.
“I remember coming down here and waiting through at least four [traffic] light cycles. It’s so much better now,” said Jen Cosmano of Minneapolis, marking her third wedding anniversary Friday with her husband Jim in Stillwater.
But a new dichotomy also has emerged: As Stillwater touts the bridge for revitalizing its downtown, some surrounding communities blame the structure for rerouting traffic in ways that are changing their cities for the worse.
To the south, some Bayport residents are worried about the sudden rise in traffic speeding through their small city. To the east, in Houlton, Wis., businesses that depended on passing drivers have seen a dramatic decline in sales.
Al Severson, owner of B & L Liquor Store in Houlton, thinks it is too early for any community to make a final conclusion about the bridge’s long-term effect.
Still, he knows what it has meant for the store he’s owned for 35 years: Business is down about 70 percent since last August.
“It’s a great bridge, but now nothing goes by here and no one stops,” Severson said.
Bayport, on the other hand, has seen a heavy increase in vehicles passing through town. But few are stopping, said City Administrator Adam Bell.
“Traffic has gone up threefold in the last year,” he said. “But it’s all cut-through traffic — our businesses aren’t noticing more patrons.”
The city of 3,500 has been stepping up its traffic enforcement to stop those speeding through the area, Bell said.
“We are just a small town with a lot of pedestrians trying to cross [Hwy. 95],” he said. “This is a safety concern for us.”
Catalyst for change
Since the ribbon was cut on the bridge, long-held rival opinions, often heated, about the St. Croix River bridge’s location and aesthetic have all but faded.
On that day last August, crowds gathered at the four-lane, milelong bridge to commemorate its completion — the centerpiece of a $646 million transportation project joining Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Last month, more than 29,000 vehicles per day passed over the bridge. By 2040, that number is expected to hit 48,000 vehicles.
The area has proved safer for motorists, too. Since the Stillwater Lift Bridge closed to vehicle traffic last year, the crash rate on Hwy. 95 leading up to the Lift Bridge has been cut by more than half.
New shops, restaurants and two new boutique hotels have come to Stillwater’s downtown. “It’s become much more active, more vibrant,” said Robin Anthony, executive director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce.
Customer traffic has grown so much, in fact, that at least one business has shut its doors, citing an inability to meet demand: the Wedge & Wheel, a cheese shop on Chestnut Street.
Owner Chris Kohtz announced its closure on social media last week.
“Closing the Lift Bridge has been, as we all knew it would be, the catalyst for a remarkable and ongoing positive transition of the downtown,” he wrote. “ ... However, as W & W has gotten busier and busier, it’s also become clear that our location and store space have limits.”
Holding the line
Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski said the problem of being too busy isn’t one that comes up often. But it’s a concern that he knows may be in some Stillwater residents’ minds: Is the city shifting too quickly?
“We all share that feeling that we don’t want to see the character of our community change,” he said, adding that new businesses can’t only be geared toward summer tourists. “We’ve got to hold on to that line.”
Stillwater will likely experience another wave of visitors when the Lift Bridge reopens next year as part of a pedestrian and bicycle trail that loops around the St. Croix through both Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“That’s going to be another massive draw,” Kozlowski said.
Oak Park Heights Mayor Mary McComber said the bridge’s completion has allowed her city to look to its future. Oak Park Heights has redone many of its roads, and McComber said she’s noticed several residents and businesses making improvements.
“We are now seeing people invest in the community because the uncertainty [about the bridge] is gone,” she said.
Back in downtown Stillwater on Friday, friends Janine Agasie and Sandie Jagusch stopped to look at renderings for the Hotel Crosby, set to open this fall on Main Street.
Agasie, of Burnsville, said the conductor on their trolley ride talked about the St. Croix River bridge and said the city had waited 50 years for it.
“It sounds like it’s made a difference,” she said.