Downtown Stillwater businesses prepare for bridge opening

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 23, 2014 - 3:00 PM

Commuter congestion will end after a new St. Croix bridge opens. What comes next depends on downtown Stillwater business owners.

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Chestnut Street, currently the busiest stretch of road in Stillwater, would change dramatically in this vision by architect Wade Goodenberger. He proposes a pedestrian plaza on the block leading to the Stillwater Lift Bridge, which closes to vehicle traffic in late 2016. The bridge will become part of a pedestrian trail.

Photo: Rendering by Wade Goodenberger,

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For 150 years, downtown Stillwater has ridden waves of boom and bust. Now, it’s arrived at a financial crossroads once again.

When a new four-lane St. Croix River bridge opens south of the city in late 2016, the Stillwater Lift Bridge will close to vehicle traffic, meaning interstate traffic will no longer run through downtown. For many business owners tired of the congestion, that’s the good news.

But it’s also widely understood that the new bridge, in Oak Park Heights, could become a magnet for more stores and restaurants competing for business. For downtown Stillwater, both blessed and cursed over the years by the traffic that drives by, that’s the bad news.

“It’s a bottleneck so therefore the people who really wanted to come downtown were getting discouraged,” said Tom Wortman, who owns the building that houses River Market Community Co-op on North Main Street. And, although “we absolutely need that new bridge,” downtown Stillwater will need to take charge of its future, he said.

Just what will happen to the financial fortunes of the worn-brick district — Minnesota’s oldest, the locals claim — depends on whether business owners can work with each other to find new reasons to lure people downtown, said Doug Menikheim, a City Council member who has said repeatedly it’s not government’s role to solve business disputes.

“We need to talk with each other, not at each other, over each other or around each other the way things have been done in the past,” he told about 40 business and property owners at a recent meeting.

Downtown Stillwater, a prime event venue because of its yesteryear retail charm, iconic bridge and picturesque bluffs, can’t survive on its reputation alone. That’s the message facing a downtown revitalization committee charged with finding a bold new image that recruits more customers — particularly local residents.

And “seismic changes” are coming, said Cory Buettner, owner of Leo’s Grill and Malt Shop.

Those changes include a new Browns Creek State Trail, which will link downtown Stillwater with Gateway State Trail along a corridor once used by the Minnesota Zephyr dinner train. A second trail will connect with the Browns Creek trail and loop over the Lift Bridge after it is closed to vehicle traffic in late 2016.

“We might be underestimating the power of that path,” Brian Zeller, a member of the biking committee, said of Browns Creek. “I think the opportunity it represents could be overwhelming.”

Bold ideas

Some of the more dramatic proposals to broaden downtown’s appeal include: converting a street into a pedestrian plaza, and outlining old buildings and the Lift Bridge with lights to accentuate their architecture against the night sky.

Smaller practical concerns include better snow removal service, paving wider sidewalks and establishing lockers for bicyclists.

“The purpose of the committee is to recognize all opportunities. Not one, not two, but all,” Todd Streeter, executive director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce, told the business owners.

Proposals discussed include:

• Plans to create ambience or “a feeling that draws you into a place you want to be,” said Rich Cummings, a financial adviser. Downtown buildings, their windows and displays, and the Lift Bridge could be illuminated with LED lighting to draw people to the district, he said. Lighting would outline architecture, capture old-world charm and make visitors feel safer, including on legendary stone staircases leading downtown from surrounding bluffs.

“People are going to say you’ll have light pollution everywhere. Not true,” Cummings said, showing examples of how low-wattage lighting changed the appearance of downtown at night without shining into neighborhoods.

  • What’s ahead

    Before a new St. Croix River bridge opens in late 2016, downtown business owners will consider:

    How they overcome their differences to make their district more enticing to shoppers.

    How to anticipate shopping trends that will draw customers to their district.

    Where to find money to upgrade buildings, install lighting and make other improvements.

    What they can offer that customers can’t find at big-box retailers on Hwy. 36.

    How to take further advantage of Stillwater’s history to promote downtown’s new image.

    Who will help. “We have a boatload of resources in our immediate area,” said Todd Streeter of Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce.

    For further information see http://communitysymposium.com/.

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