As a large new four-lane bridge rises over the St. Croix River, promoters of a revitalized downtown Stillwater are busy building something of their own.
They've now kicked their vision of a commuter-free business district into second gear, riding on the idea that the 150-year-old downtown has so much more road to travel. About 100 downtown property owners recently formed a coalition — the second phase of the rejuvenation project linked to the new bridge — to begin building a thriving year-round commercial district.
"We can harness this whole rich history which we're not even close to marketing," said Todd Streeter of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce. "We've got the best show on Earth right here."
The ownership coalition comes three years after Streeter, City Council Member Doug Menikheim and others began a series of community forums to take stock of one of the state's oldest downtowns. Various volunteer committees examined everything from lighting and biking to snow removal, streetscapes and historical themes.
"Now you hear people talk about revitalizing downtown," said Menikheim, who not long ago publicly stated his exasperation over feuding among business owners. "This whole thing is about the people who want to be involved and want ownership of the future."
Construction of the new bridge, scheduled for completion in late 2016, beckons significant changes for downtown Stillwater. Since 1931, the Lift Bridge has funneled interstate traffic into the business district, but it will close to vehicle traffic and become part of a new pedestrian trail when the new bridge opens.
Shifting commuter traffic to the new bridge will put downtown Stillwater at a crossroads, presumably renewing its appeal to local residents. But it's widely understood that the new bridge, in Oak Park Heights, could bring more stores and restaurants competing for business along Hwy. 36.
Digital markets also threaten brick-and-mortar businesses in Stillwater, as well as in other cities.
"Collectively, property owners stand to gain or lose based on the fortunes of downtown," Streeter said. "Downtown faces significant competition from nearby big-box stores, regional retail and lifestyle centers, and Internet shopping. For this reason it is imperative that owners work together to promote opportunities that make downtown thrive as one commercial district."
In essence, downtown revitalization banks on exploiting its best-known asset — its incomparable rivertown history.
Stillwater's yesteryear retail charm, built around the city's bridge and picturesque bluffs, can't survive on reputation alone, said Streeter and Menikheim, who see vast potential in making the city's history more apparent and inviting.
Recommendations for property owners include installing ambient lighting for historic buildings at night to make them more appealing, and adding lighting to the city's legendary bluff stairs for safety and emphasis. The Lift Bridge, considered the visual centerpiece of downtown Stillwater, also could be illuminated with low-wattage lighting to accentuate its architecture, Streeter said.
Historical signs, interpretive displays and other features drawing attention to the past could transform Main Street downtown, Menikheim said. Doing that would require that the state sign over its highway to the city.
"It's people who buy, it's not automobiles," he said.
Other ideas produced by volunteer committees include wider sidewalks, more emphasis on arts events, better snow removal, more benches outside of businesses and a shopper trolley.
The new property owners coalition comes amid several major improvement projects in Stillwater. Land purchased along the river, north and south of downtown, is expected to become public park space. And the new Brown's Creek State Trail should bring thousands of people into the city in weather-friendly months.
Stillwater Candyland owner Brandon Lamb, chairman of the coalition, said its goal is to "establish an economically vibrant downtown" and find a "common purpose" among property owners.
"There's quite a bit of work involved, in my opinion," Lamb said. "I'm really confident that this group of people can come together. The potential down here is incredible."
The coalition will help owners and merchants pay for improvements, Streeter said. Funding could come from foundations, government agencies, business associations and philanthropic groups, he said.