When the Stillwater Lift Bridge closes to vehicle traffic in 2016, as many as 20,000 cars daily will bypass the historic downtown on a new bridge. Business owners want to make sure their customers have a reason to come back.
Stillwater’s Downtown Revitalization Committee is in the process of rebranding downtown to address the bevy of opportunities and challenges, including the reality of a congestion-free riverfront—and the absence of routine commuters that brought business to the area.
That means promoting what Stillwater does have when it doesn’t have traffic.
“We literally have a national park right at our doorstep,” Stillwater mayor Ken Harycki said about the riverfront. “With these changes, I feel the better days of Stillwater are still ahead of us.”
Harycki estimates between 50,000 and 70,000 people each year will use the Browns Creek State Trail, a 5.9-mile bike path that will run through downtown Stillwater, and which is expected to be ready this fall.
The trail will connect Stillwater with traffic from the 18-mile Gateway State Trail that begins in St. Paul.
“We’re perfectly positioned for a weekend getaway,” Harycki said. “With the bicycle trail you can leave downtown St. Paul, take Gateway all the way to Stillwater, have lunch, and be back in St. Paul by the end of the day.”
Harycki said that removing Hwy. 36 commuter traffic from downtown Stillwater is “one of the biggest positives” to making over downtown.
“This is the perfect opportunity to make corrections to existing situations right now,” said Todd Streeter, executive director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce. “We have such great potential for downtown; we just have to literally discover it.”
Harycki said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will finish the third phase of Stillwater’s riverfront protection this spring, adding that it has come after “15 years of delays.”
“They’ll put a levy in where some of those parking lots were,” Harycki said. “On top of the levy will be a bicycle-pedestrian trail, benches and such.”
With less congestion downtown, Streeter said that Chestnut Street, leading up to the Lift Bridge, could be converted to a plaza to open up space and connect north and south sides of the river front.
Mead Stone, a general manager at River Market Community Co-op, said he’s optimistic about what the city is trying to do, but that he will wait and see.
“I feel it’s a flip of the coin,” Stone said. “We could turn into downtown Hastings and get really quiet.”
But Stone acknowledged that when a three-month closure hit the lift bridge last fall, the co-op saw an increase in its membership — despite 22 percent of the co-op’s business coming from across the river.
“I feel fairly optimistic. The city is staging meetings every month, talking about what the future’s like,” Stone said. “That’s new for Stillwater.”
Andrew Krammer is a University of Minnesota student journalist on assignment for the Star Tribune.