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One year after construction, some Stillwater merchants say bridge hurts business

Carrie Bowman, left, from Minnetonka, and Maryann Gapinski, from South St. Paul, look at clothing on Main Street after meeting friends for lunch at The Dock in Stillwater on Wednesday, August 1, 2018. One year ago the new St. Croix River Bridge opened which altered the town. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 2
Anita Butkiewicz, right, from Stillwater, brought her granddaughter, Bryn Murphy, 9, to see the one-year-old St. Croix River Bridge on Wednesday, August 1, 2018. Bryn used to live in Stillwater, but moved last year to Missoula with her family, and so she has never seen the new bridge. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press2 / 2

STILLWATER, Minn.—It's the bridge that changed everything.

Since the new St. Croix River bridge opened one year ago, the impact has rippled outward — boosting tourism, business, housing and civic pride as far as 15 miles away.

Above all, it has given Carole Van Valkenburg her town back. "Oh, my God, it was always a big ordeal to get into Stillwater," said Van Valkenburg. "But now, it's like a small town again."

In its first year, the bridge has become the only state road project that tourists will pay to visit. Van Valkenburg's company, St. Croix Valley Segway, runs tours of the bridge every day — and often has to turn tourists away.

"The bridge is absolutely beautiful," she said.

In its first year, the bridge has mostly lived up to expectations, but has raised new concerns as well. Some businesses wonder if Stillwater is shifting too quickly towards tourism, and some unexpected traffic problems have emerged. Some Wisconsin merchants blame it for crippling their business.

"That bridge sucks," said Al Severson, whose ailing B&L Liquors in Houlton, Wis., has been crippled by the change in traffic patterns. Severson's business is near the remains of Houlton's only convenience store, which closed because of the bridge.

The bridge replaced the Stillwater Lift Bridge, which for 86 years allowed traffic to trickle between Minnesota and Wisconsin on two narrow lanes. The new one-mile, four-lane freeway bridge south of Stillwater in Oak Park Heights took more than $624 million to complete.

The bridge improved the flow of traffic in most nearby areas. The exception is Bayport, where rush-hour traffic has spiked.

Jenny Schneider, former Bayport Planning Commission member, said that some Wisconsin commuters have stopped using the Interstate 94 bridge. Instead, they take a shortcut through Bayport to get to the new bridge.

"We used to be a sleepy little town," said Schneider. "Now, about 4 p.m. every day, we have a traffic jam, and in the morning, too."

Stillwater is 'more enjoyable'

The most dramatic changes can be seen on the streets of Stillwater.

When the Lift Bridge was open, a line of angry commuters would often be jammed up on both sides of the river.

Not anymore. The Lift Bridge is permanently closed to vehicles, and traffic has been dampened to a leisurely, pedestrian-friendly pace — the way it was when the city was first built.

"It's a more enjoyable downtown," said Mayor Ted Kozlowski.

Businesses are adjusting to a decrease in street traffic, and an increase in tourism.

As the new bridge has siphoned off commuters, tourists have rushed in to fill the void. And tourists are interested in hotels, restaurants, souvenirs and Segway tours.

At Katydid's women's clothing store, sales have increased slightly this year.

"But we are seeing the changing face of Stillwater," said owner Loann Stokes. "They used to come downtown for shopping, and maybe lunch or dinner. Now, it's the opposite — they come for dinner and maybe do some shopping in between."

Katydid's clerk Joe Rice said, "I'd say the bridge's impact on traffic is positive. The impact on business is negative."

Margene Westmoreland agreed. She manages the Kathe Wohlfahrt store, selling Christmas ornaments year-round.

She didn't want to criticize the bridge. "The bridge is lovely," said Westmoreland.

But was it good for business? She just shrugged.

"There's more foot traffic, but not more buyers," she said.

Robin Anthony, executive director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce, said businesses overall are delighted with the bridge.

"It gave us our little town back," she said. "The bridge has opened up our town for opportunity."