Only a few short years ago, a messy summer festival and bitter disagreements over a new bridge trapped Stillwater under dark clouds of controversy.
Soon after that came a criminal indictment of Mayor Ken Harycki for hiding tax revenue from the federal government at his accounting business. He abruptly left public office under a drizzle of despair.
Then the wind shifted, and Stillwater’s weather changed in a hurry. Residents differ on whether any given day is partly cloudy or sunny, but it’s clear that recent storms have ebbed.
The old Lumberjack Days name is attached again to the summer festival, but with new coordinators who so impressed the City Council with three years of community-oriented, drama-free festivals that they were awarded a new contract.
Residents still argue over the new four-lane bridge, but the debate has cooled. The bridge is significantly constructed, if not yet entirely accepted, but when it opens a year from now much of the interstate commuter traffic on Stillwater’s neighborhood streets should disappear.
The new Brown’s Creek State Trail, which begins at the north end of downtown, is now a busy thoroughfare for tens of thousands of walkers, runners, cyclists and skiers each year. It will connect with a new loop trail over the Stillwater Lift Bridge once the new highway bridge opens in Oak Park Heights.
That’s right: No more vehicles on the downtown lift bridge by late 2017, which has led to some breezy ideas about converting a portion of Chestnut Street into a car-free plaza.
New parkland on either end of downtown Stillwater will make the St. Croix River even more accessible, contrasting sharply with the days of long ago when heavy industry dominated the riverbanks. Now people, not machines, have priority along the scenic river.
Winter could be busy
City officials long have lamented that Stillwater has two seasons — tourist-busy summer and buttoned-up winter — but that could change this fall if Ice Castles LLC comes to town.
The company proposes to build an adventure castle on the riverbank with 25 million pounds of ice. Colored lights will highlight tunnels, fountains, pathways, waterfalls and slides. The attraction would open in December and last into March, until warmer temperatures beckon boating weather.
Post-recession, the downtown is looking alive. A once-dark restaurant at the corner of Main and Chestnut is aglow again. Ziggy’s Restaurant opened with food and music, replacing a Dairy Queen that relocated to Hwy. 36.
At the north end of Main Street, a major performing arts theater could move into the old Minnesota Zephyr dinner train depot. Founders of the Zephyr Theatre — “Where dreams come to life” — are working to raise $6.5 million to buy and renovate the property.
At the south end of Main, a developer has revived a proposal to build a 40-room boutique hotel in the historic Joseph Wolf Brewery block. The City Council, hearing that some of the block was in serious disrepair, offered more than $1 million in tax-increment financing toward construction, targeted for late September.
Merchants in the historic district have considered numerous improvements, such as wider sidewalks and low-level lighting to outline historic buildings.
Some of the changes aren’t without controversy. Occasionally neighbors object, plans fall through and projections of visitor spending reach too far. But Stillwater’s legendary centerpiece — the lift bridge — continues to inspire new thinking downtown.
For now, at least, the forecast shows sunny weather ahead.