In the nearly half-century Chris Polfus has called New Richmond, Wis., home, he’s watched with amazement as the city has slowly doubled, then more than quadrupled in size.

But he predicts that growth will be nothing compared with the boom that could develop once a new St. Croix River bridge opens in 2016.

“At first it’s going to start out slow and then it’s going to go crazy,” said Polfus, who owns Brady’s Brewhouse in downtown New Richmond. “The city’s going to get bigger, it can’t help itself. New Richmond’s poised to grow.”

When the massive, four-lane bridge connecting Minnesota and Wisconsin opens to traffic, it will loom as a beacon for growth in northern St. Croix County’s bucolic countryside, now home to about 16,000 people — most of whom live in New Richmond. And while work hasn’t yet started on the superstructure portion of a bridge that will be three times taller than the Interstate 94 bridge at Hudson, signs of preparation are popping up everywhere.

Planners at St. Croix County offices and other local governments have commissioned a University of Wisconsin Extension study to measure potential changes to the economy. New countywide aerial photography also will provide specific data to help communities wrestling with growing pains.

In New Richmond, a city of 8,900 residents, officials are trying to figure out whether current government services, such as police department staffing and water and sewer utilities, can handle a spike in demand.

And in the town of St. Joseph, population 3,800, a committee has formed to address issues such as bluffland management, stormwater runoff and business expansion.

“I do personally think that when we see that bridge rise up out of the water we’re going to hear more from developers,” said Dan Thompson, an elected supervisor in St. Joseph, the ground zero of potentially explosive change. “The biggest thing people don’t want is St. Joe being overrun with development. You can’t just throw open the door to everybody and say ‘Come on in.’ ”

Changes everywhere

Similar concerns are being expressed across the river in Minnesota, where some city officials are already bracing for rapid growth along Hwy. 36 through Oak Park Heights.

The four-lane bridge, with its towering blufftop-to-blufftop design, is expected to stand as a monument to engineering, built to last 100 years and someday ferry as many as 100,000 vehicles a day between Washington County and western Wisconsin.

“It’s not a ho-hum bridge. It’s going to have a unique style and character to it,” said Todd Streeter, executive director of the Stillwater Area Chamber of Commerce. “That bridge is going to become a landmark as much as the Golden Gate Bridge is.”

The bridge will become such a magnet for new business, he predicted, that immediate changes should be evident along the Hwy. 36 corridor. First among them could be an influx of new tenants for vacant commercial buildings, and remodeling and expansions of current businesses.

Downtown business owners, meanwhile, are working to reinvent the historic district before the aging Lift Bridge — built in 1931 — that leads to and from downtown closes to traffic, shifting 17,400 daily crossings two miles south to a bridge that will stand 219 feet off the water at its tallest point.

“I think we’re all excited to see these improvements,” Streeter said. “There are a lot of benefits to the project that are not just about moving traffic from one area to another.”

No big-box stores, yet

In St. Joseph, town officials will decide within a year whether to withdraw from the county’s comprehensive plan and forge ahead with their own planning and zoning ordinances. If that happens, Thompson said, “we’re going to have to deal with any big development on our own,” and that could be costly for a small town.

Nobody has proposed building a big retail store in St. Joseph, but with the new bridge coming, that’s not out of the question, said Ellen Denzer, St. Croix County’s community development coordinator. The town’s sanitary services as they now stand would be inadequate, she said, because the entire town uses private septic disposal.

“The idea of a small community totally putting in a sanitary system so they can handle big-box retail probably wouldn’t be cost effective,” she said.

Whether the bridge will lead to rapid development, however, remains to be seen.

The new highway leading from the bridge isn’t being built to accommodate large retail development, said Bill Rubin of the St. Croix Economic Development Corp.

“There’s going to be traffic but I think the point of the four-lane highway is to limit the comings and goings, on and off,” he said. “I don’t anticipate businesses dotting the landscape. Motorists have to be able to get to those businesses. You don’t want to diminish a four-lane highway with curb cuts and exits every few blocks.”

Denzer, for one, thinks it’s more likely that development will be slower, and confined mostly to smaller businesses.

That’s the thinking in New Richmond, too.

“Do we feel there’s going to be an impact from the bridge? Yes,” said Beth Thompson, the city’s economic development director. “Do we think it will be an overnight impact? No.”

Even with the new bridge, most of St. Croix County’s projected growth is expected to occur along I-94 east from Hudson.

Other trends, too, suggest slower development in the St. Croix County area where the bridge will be built.

The bridge will open at a time when demographers report diminishing interest in exurban living. And while housing sales have picked up in St. Croix County, the number of sheriff sales remain high.

Still, what’s not known, said Logan Kelly, an economist at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, is just how a new bridge will change commerce and transportation patterns.

“I would expect an almost immediate increase of traffic going across the new bridge,” he said. “That could make a pretty major shift as far as transportation dynamics. Forecasting something like this is historically really difficult.”

At the bustling Brewhouse, with 42 varieties of beer in an 1895 building, Polfus said he’s anxious for more business. His pub already attracts customers from the Twin Cities metro area, and if a new bridge makes that trip easier, he’s fine with that.

“I’m OK with busier,” he said.