A block-at-a-time construction project in downtown Anoka promises long-term gain, but for now merchants are feeling short-term pain.
Beyond the torn-up sidewalk and asphalt on Anoka's Main Street, orange cones and yellow tape blocked store entrances. Hard hats shouted over the grind of trucks and concrete-breaking machines. Merchants watched helplessly as potential customers drove by in confusion.
"I'm befuddled," said Marian Heinz, 66, who has been coming to Main Street for 43 years. "I'm delivering posters to stores, but there's no way to get to the main entrances."
A $5.78 million beautification project that City Manager Tim Cruikshank says will "transform the image of Anoka" has left the quaint downtown district in this old Mississippi River town a mess. When it's completed, there will be widened sidewalks, new trees and landscaping, benches, paver crosswalks and bump-outs at intersections to enhance pedestrian safety.
"It's a beautification project, but if you're walking around downtown Anoka right now, it's walk at your own risk," said Carl Kerssen, who has owned the Forever Yours tattoo parlor on Main Street for six years.
The city project, along a stretch from Ferry Street (Hwy. 169) to 7th Avenue, is to be completed before Anoka's annual Halloween parade. It's being done one block at a time: A block is completed in three weeks, then work moves one block east.
But one block of construction has created traffic jams unlike any Anoka has seen in years.
"When Michele Bachmann comes in here to eat, that doesn't stop traffic the way this construction has," said Tom Gorman, owner of G's Cafe, referring to the famous congresswoman and Anoka native.
Cruikshank says that since the construction began, 5 p.m. traffic on Hwy. 169, which intersects with Main Street a block west of this construction zone, backs up across the river and all the way to Champlin, more than a half-mile away.
Eastbound Main Street drivers, heading to the Anoka County Government Center and courthouse, are confined to one lane and cannot turn left on 2nd Avenue, toward the free Jackson Street parking ramp.
And merchants, who watch potential customers wince as they drive by, feel like exiles on Main Street. Some customers don't realize that stores are open. Most just don't know how to get to them.
"We can't be negative about a worthwhile project," said Mary Gorman, co-owner of G's Cafe. "But many of our customers are concerned for us. We're concerned, too."
Taking the pledge
The city and its merchants have been proactive. Many have taken part in a "Rediscover Anoka" online campaign that asks customers to take the pledge "not to be afraid of orange cones, one-lane-only signs and plywood sidewalks" during the Main Street makeover. Customers who sign up are eligible for daily discounts, some worth 10 percent off.
But that hasn't eased all the tension that comes with navigating through a construction maze.
Erin Emmans owns Teasers Salon on Main Street and the Thrift Cellar downstairs. The salon is a destination stop for customers, but those customers have been arriving late for appointments since the work began. The Thrift Store relies on impulse shoppers. With no large visual presence to attract passersby and no sidewalk for foot traffic, the shop has felt the effect of the concrete breaking outside. "It will be beautiful when it's finished," Emmans said of her block. "But right now, my customers are not happy."
The Forever Yours tattoo parlor is one of several shops that have temporarily lost their front entrance. Kerssen countered by placing 10 signs around the block, alerting customers to a side entrance. But he was told that those signs violate a city ordinance.
"I'll keep the signs out there as long as I can," he said. "I'm just trying to make a living."
Jenson's, a women's and children's clothing store that has been in Anoka since 1938, has a back lot and entrance that customers have used for years, said third-generation family owner Theresa Jaeger. "Our customers know we're here," she said. "They'll find us."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419