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Joe Kohler, owner of Joseph's Family Restaurant in Stillwater, has been serving up pot roast, roasted chicken and rhubarb cream pie for nearly four decades. These days, though, the recipe he's working on is one that he hopes will keep customers coming through years of road work related to construction of the new St. Croix River Bridge.
That's a concern he shares with dozens of other business owners in Stillwater and Oak Park Heights as they anticipate the reconstruction beginning this spring of frontage roads along the Hwy. 36 business corridor. The work will remove traffic bottlenecks and safety hazards on Hwy. 36 on a two-mile approach to the new bridge.
"They're all concerned with the ingress and egress, making sure that they're all able to have some customers," Kohler said of neighboring businesses. "That's our lifeblood."
Like many others, Kohler hopes that loyal customers will make the effort to get to his location despite the disruption expected from the road work, which is to begin in May. Construction on the piers for the new four-lane bridge, which will replace the 81-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge and connect expressways in Oak Park Heights and St. Joseph Township, Wis., also is to begin in the spring, officials said last week.
Kohler, however, is not counting on loyalty alone, and already is thinking ahead to such steps as posting signs touting "Rocky Road Specials" to attract diners. He also will use the restaurant's Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare pages and its customer e-mail list to promote deals -- and remind regular patrons that the business is open. Kohler said he also has been looking into starting a loyalty card program to motivate return visits.
"We're going to have features we'll run during this time that we hope will be creative and good enough deals to make them want to drive to us," said Kohler, who has about 70 employees. "We think during the time of construction that's going to be critical to keep in touch with everybody who has enjoyed Joseph's and keep them coming."
At Rose Floral and Greenhouse, president Larry Rose said he was keeping his fingers crossed that loyal customers would continue to seek out the third-generation, family-owned business during construction. Rose also is planning to step up communication with customers and offer specials.
"We have an extensive e-mail customer list and if necessary will let our customers know how to get to our business if there are detours," Rose said. "Plus, we will offer certain incentives, do a little discounting to make it more attractive to them to come in."
Rose Floral has cut back on inventory over the past couple of years because of the slow economy, and Rose said he was reluctant to carry out any further reductions.
"We won't be planning on any growth," he said of the construction period. "We have to plan optimistically and hope for the best. We're hoping the final outcome, with the new bridge and new approaches, is that they will pay off in the end and make the inconvenience worth it. We have to look forward to the future on that."
Todd Streeter, president and executive director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce, said the Minnesota Department of Transportation has hosted a series of open houses, attended by 120 Hwy. 36 area businesses, to offer updates on timelines and construction that may take place in the spring.
"They are doing absolutely everything they can to minimize the construction impact on any roadway along 36," Streeter said. "They're trying to keep all avenues open as much as possible."
MnDOT manager John Chiglo, according to Streeter, has assured business owners that if work is going on at one Hwy. 36 intersection, a second one will not be closed at the same time. If asphalt is removed, gravel will be put down so customers can reach businesses along the highway.
Streeter said the chamber has been working with transportation officials in both states to assemble a comprehensive database of Hwy. 36 businesses to notify them of pending construction or road or intersection closures. The chamber also is working with officials to promote economic activity at businesses along Hwy. 36 during construction.
"There's nothing perfect about construction," Streeter said. "You take every step you can to minimize situations, but there will be times that will be a little trying. The best thing business owners can do is be very proactively communicating with their customers ... about construction activity that may take place within the immediate proximity of their businesses."
Alerting customers of road or intersection closings in advance gives them the opportunity to plan trips to avoid the disruption, said Streeter, who said he's been researching steps businesses can take during construction.
Some businesses can modify their operations, perhaps by reducing inventory to free up cash in case of a dip in sales, Streeter said. Some may adjust employee schedules based on anticipated traffic volume.
"We have the time now," Streeter said. "It's October, and all the businesses have time to start to think about the financial impacts and prepare for that the best they can so they can weather that situation during the main crux of the construction.
"There will be a number of marketing and communication programs we'll be aggressively putting into place to make sure we keep the customers coming."
Todd Nelson is a Twin Cities freelance writer.