The fate of Stillwater's only remaining neighborhood grocery store could hinge on a Washington County study of traffic bottlenecks at that intersection.
The owner of Len's Family Foods "adamantly opposes" a county proposal to build a traffic circle at Owens Street North and Myrtle Street West because, he said, it would eliminate two on-street parking spots for his customers.
"That would take half of our parking," Len Nelson said last week. "I would prefer it just be left alone."
Nelson and his family have owned and managed the corner store for 20 years, but the business dates to about 1900. Small "mom-and-pop" grocery stores once dotted Stillwater, but they disappeared as the city grew and supermarkets became all the rage.
On Tuesday, the County Board is expected to approve a contract with Bolton and Menk Inc., a civil-engineering company, to study traffic backups that sometimes extend three blocks at peak commuter hours.
County engineers favor a mini-roundabout to replace four stop signs, which they say also would improve safety at other nearby intersections, but only after the study is completed will the County Board endorse a construction plan — or none at all.
"The big concern I have is the impact this is going to have on Len's," said Commissioner Gary Kriesel, whose district includes Stillwater. "If you take any parking spots away from them, that is going to affect their business."
The Owens-Myrtle intersection is no ordinary throughway for Stillwater drivers. Owens, also known as County Road 5, funnels traffic north and south, and it's one of only three arterials in the city to do so. Main Street in downtown Stillwater does the same, and Manning Avenue west of the city also runs north and south. Owens at peak times is crammed with commuters who live in Stillwater Township and other areas north of the city.
The east-west Myrtle Avenue connects downtown with Manning, and it's a main route for emergency vehicles.
When a new St. Croix Bridge opens in late 2016 and the Stillwater Lift Bridge closes to traffic, it's anticipated that congestion actually could grow worse on Owens because of changing driver habits, said Joe Gustafson, the county's transportation engineer.
Nelson's grocery store, meanwhile, sits at the center of the controversy where traffic has grown substantially over the years. The congestion isn't bad enough to discourage business, he said, and worsens only at peak times of the day.
Len's also has three parking stalls behind the store.
"It's the oldest business in Stillwater that's still in the same place. That's our claim to fame," Nelson said. "We have everything the big stores have but just less of it."
Commissioner Fran Miron, who owns a farm in Hugo, sometimes stops at Len's for groceries on his way out of Stillwater.
"I love the store. It reminds me of some of the stores we used to have in Hugo," he said. "That on-street parking is critical to the store."
Washington County currently has 23 roundabouts that vary in size. "They don't work everywhere," said Don Theisen, who manages the county's public works department. Kriesel concurred.
"A roundabout, depending on how the public views them, can be scorned or very successful," he said.
County Engineer Wayne Sandberg said the study would supply answers to possible solutions at the intersections, including computer simulations that would show how cars yield and merge around a mini-roundabout.
At issue is whether a string of vehicles entering a small, single-lane roundabout from one direction might block vehicles trying to enter from the other. Drivers would be forced to stop "with that kind of traffic," Commissioner Ted Bearth said.
More information about Len's Family Foods is available at www.lensfamilyfoods.com.