As Washington County launches into 2014, stories about development are expected to dominate the headlines, helping everyone forget the last gasps of the Great Recession as the new year ushers in growth more reminiscent of prerecession days. Major issues in Washington County this year will include growing attention to groundwater shortages, debates over public spending, and a continuing march of serious crime through the courts. Increasing population also is expected to increase demands on services. Here are some of the big stories expected in 2014:
Big bridge, big changes
Highway reconstruction connected with the St. Croix River bridge project will move west in 2014, revamping gridlocked Oak Park Heights intersections at Osgood Avenue and Oakgreen/Greeley Avenue and related frontage roads on Hwy. 36. The reconstruction will be completed by fall.
Meanwhile, contractor Ames-Lunda will start work on the superstructure portion of the four-lane bridge; foundations for five sets of piers in the river are largely finished. On the Wisconsin side, construction of approach highways will begin this year.
The hum of rejuvenated economic activity is apparent around the county and much of it centers on Woodbury, which has opened a large swath of its undeveloped southern portion to housing. Construction has started at Bielenberg Gardens, which will include a grocery store, and senior and other housing. HealthEast Care System and Health Partners will add or expand medical clinics.
In Cottage Grove, a Wal-Mart Supercenter is set to open this spring. Housing developments are also sprouting.
Forest Lake broke ground in September on its new City Center. The former Northland Mall site will include a new City Hall/Public Safety building, but the city is hoping it also becomes a hub for private development.
Transit projects bloom
Two major transit projects in Washington County are gathering steam. The opening this year of the controversial new $6.2 million transit station in Newport represents a significant first step in the Red Rock Corridor, a 30-mile transit route that will snake from St. Paul to Hastings. The route will be serviced by express buses, but officials will continue to explore the possibility of converting to bus rapid transit or light-rail service.
The Gateway Corridor Commission is seeking $5 million in state bonding money for engineering work on the commuter corridor, set to open in 2022 along Interstate 94 from downtown St. Paul to the St. Croix River.
Hello, Stillwater Log Jam
A new Stillwater summer festival — the Log Jam — will take place, three years after the collapse of Lumberjack Days. Five Stillwater business owners who call themselves “The Locals” won permission from the City Council in November to organize a smaller, more homegrown event. The festival will include not only a parade and fireworks but many new attractions, such as local history displays. Lumberjack Days ended in 2011 over allegations of financial improprieties.
New beginnings at State Farm
The former State Farm campus in Woodbury will get a makeover in 2014 after the long-vacant property was bought by Elion Partners. Officials said the development is “the last piece” in a burgeoning shopping district along I-94 that includes the new Cabela’s store. Woodbury is counting on the Florida-based real estate investment and development firm to deliver on its promise to turn the property into a mixed-use commercial development with retail, office space and an upscale hotel. A site plan application could be submitted by the end of the spring.
Take a walk on the wild side
The new Browns Creek State Trail will open after years of planning, negotiations and delays. Paving of the 5.8-mile route was delayed until money was found to build a trail bridge over busy Manning Avenue.
The state Department of Natural Resources anticipates that 75,000 people annually will follow the trail, from the north end of Stillwater’s Main Street to the Gateway State Trail in Grant.
Public safety training center
The public safety training facility project is taking shape in Cottage Grove, helping to fill a growing need for more specialized police, fire and paramedic training. The city’s request for money in the 2014 state bonding bill would help cover at least part of the estimated $20 million cost of building the so-called HERO Center, which stands for Health and Emergency Response Occupations.
It’s all about the water
Public discussions over groundwater depletion and contamination will accelerate. Possibly thousands of deficient septic systems, many of them leaking, will lead to a wide-scale county effort to correct the problem. On a related front, more cities might consider following Hugo’s example and explore methods of tapping stormwater, instead of wells, for irrigation.
Voters will see school levies
November’s off-year election brought approval of school levies in the South Washington and Stillwater school districts and another rejection of funding by Mahtomedi voters. Because school districts still have glaring needs, efforts to ask voters for support will remain a constant theme.
Mahtomedi plans to try again this fall, and in Forest Lake, the school district plans to ask voters on May 20 for as much as $176 million in bonds for major repairs and upgrades to its buildings. While South Washington School District voters passed two of three levy questions, a request for $8 million for future building needs was narrowly defeated. The issue will likely return.
High-profile court cases
• A trial likely will begin this summer in the case of Aaron Schnagl, a 29-year-old Chisago City man now serving a sentence on drug charges who was indicted on a charge of third-degree murder last month for causing the death of 27-year-old Danielle Jelinek of Oakdale. Her family last saw her on Dec. 8, 2012, and reported her missing the next day. Her body was found in a marshy area in May near Schnagl’s home. The indictment accuses Schnagl, an admitted drug dealer, of providing the drugs that killed Jelinek. His next court date is Jan. 22.
• Nicole Beecroft, found guilty in September of second-degree intentional murder in the stabbing death of her newborn infant in 2007, will be sentenced in coming months. Beecroft, then 17 and an Oakdale resident, originally was found guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, but the state Supreme Court granted her a new trial because of witness tampering. Her conviction on the new charge calls for a sentence of about 23 to 30 years.
• David Eckberg, the longtime face of Stillwater’s former Lumberjack Days festival, is scheduled to go on trial before a jury on Feb. 3. Eckberg is accused of defrauding creditors out of thousands of dollars. He faces five felony counts alleging theft by check and five alleging issuance of a dishonored check.
Increased diversity lies ahead
Washington County has grown increasingly diverse over the past two decades, a trend that is expected to continue in 2014 and beyond. Experts cite the usual factors: a shift in immigrant settlement patterns, rising birthrates, and proximity to good jobs and schools. The increased diversity has been most evident in fast-growing places like Woodbury and Hugo. As a result, cities will have to meet what experts believe will be a growing demand for multicultural offerings at schools, senior centers and churches.