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Afton businesses open during construction

The road sign says closed, but the businesses are not.

As bulldozers and other heavy machinery move tons of earth to build a city sewer system in Afton, businesses in the Old Village want the public to know they're open.

Earlier this month, construction crews broke ground on a large downtown project that's closed a half-mile stretch of St. Croix Trail where several businesses have begun opening for the warmer season. While business owners have noted a slight decline in foot traffic, some in the historic downtown are coping with a sense of humor.

Selma's Ice Cream Parlour added a rocky road sundae to its menu as an homage to the torn-up road in front of the shop. At the Squire House Gardens, co-owner Martin Stern jokes St. Croix Trail is as it was in the 1800s, which adds to Old Village's aesthetic.

"I think we've all just kind of embraced it," Selma's owner Becky Nickerson said of the construction. "We have to have fun with this."

In past weeks, a number of construction workers have been frequenting the parlor to cool off with cones, malts and to celebrate birthdays. Nickerson said she even baked cookies for the crew before Easter.

Afton Business Association president Darcy Gasper said she worries some of her neighbors who depend on casual foot traffic, especially from those who meander the Old Village on a sunny spring day for example.

"We want people to know that all the businesses are open," she said, adding that while intimidating, the construction is easy to detour.

Some of the patios are still pretty quiet, Gasper said, and the streets tend to be quieter in the evenings without motorcycle and vehicle traffic.

Overall, Gasper said businesses support the project, mainly for concern for protection from the St. Croix River when it floods.

In addition to sewer and road repairs, the city will also be also making significant upgrades to the flood levee behind the businesses to better handle flooding from the St. Croix.

Nickerson said, Selma's had to close a few years ago because of high water levels. The finished project, she said, will lessen her and other business owners' anxieties with flooding.

"Business has been down, but we're just really hopeful for the end result," Nickerson said. "I think it's going to be more accessible for our customers and more people. We'll whether it."

How to get around

The city has set up detour signs pointing visitors to park behind the Historic Afton House Inn.

City Administrator Ron Moorse said St. Croix Trail will likely reopen the closed part of St. Croix Trail in early May.

Construction will then move north of Afton Boulevard where there will be a detour near City Hall.

The project is also ahead of schedule due to favorable weather, Moorse added.

That's especially important with summer events like Strawberry Festival, the Fourth of July Parade and Art in the Park drawing near. "We always wanted to do whatever we could to make them happen," Moorse said.

The business association still plans to hold a weekly farmers market this summer, but organizers may have to find different locations depending construction, Gapser said.

The downtown project will likely wrap up in the fall, Moorse said.