In the early part of April 2020, Wadena is scheduled to see construction start in the heart of the community, essentially shutting down the main arteries of Hwy 10 and 71 and diverting traffic around the city. This construction project, to reconstruct Hwy 10, has been in talks for years, decades -- even generations. While the end result promises to be an improvement, those having to travel around the mess have concerns, and are looking for solutions in the months before the next big dig begins.
A group of 16 local business owners, city staff and concerned citizens came together in an effort to do more than just sit by and wait for the next phase of road construction to bring traffic to a screeching halt. This group that attended, the “road rally” Tuesday, July 30, looks to be prepared for what’s to come so that the community residents, travelers and businesses not only survive the changes that come with construction, but find a way to thrive.
Vicki Chepulis, program director of Five Wings Arts Council, said the construction talk sprung from another group, the “Picture Us Beautiful” committee that is gathering a plan to make the new entry into Wadena more beautiful and inviting. That all started once demolition cleared out buildings at the Hwy 10 and 71 junction in 2018 and 2019. So while the finished product should be a new, improved roadway, construction is disruptive.
“It will be a very big disruption for next year,” Wadena City Administrator Janette Bower said. She helped lead discussion and offer up and road construction details she knew of.
“This construction is really gonna mess things up for people, it’s gonna mess up things for people who have to get from one part of town to another, for travelers coming through, but most significantly businesses,” Chepulis said. “But there’s a lot of ways that we can really address this and make it fun." That was at the crux of this gathering. To find ways to make this whole thing positive.
The group took turns excitedly throwing out ideas like going above just standard road construction signage. They considered adding billboards, road signs, marketing campaigns, working with local media and social media in an effort to get the word out that while traffic may be diverted from the normal, businesses are still open and still in need of your business, including locals and travelers.
Business people brought up ideas for added events that could draw people to Wadena businesses. That could look like block parties, corner parties, offering construction sale specials, concerts, and the like. As this progresses, the group will continue to seek feedback for ways to bring people into town.
Chepulis said that the towns that have done this well have made the road construction a fun thing. Those stuck in traffic have some entertaining signage to inform them not just where the detour is, but where they can go to find good food and shopping.
When the group broke into smaller groups to discuss other thoughts, local business woman Jolene Johannes said one way she thought she could help was by asking her co-workers to take another route into town to avoid clogging up the detour route.
Wadena County Historical Society executive director Lina Belar suggested maps that would indicate the best travel for semis or those customers looking to find a place to shop.
Even setting up a radio signal that travelers could tune in to and hear the latest construction updates and detour info or upcoming events to attend was considered.
Another important point brought up by Wadena Chamber of Commerce executive director Jed Brazier was that the lines of communication need to remain open. As soon as construction updates are available, they should be shared by all means possible. Any events planned should be shared and communicated to the max.
He added that if you find people talking negatively about this project in Wadena, take the time to remind them that Wadena is not closed during this project.
“There’s detours. It’s Minnesota, there will be road construction everywhere,” Brazier said. “This does not shutdown our awesome little town.”
Despite all the talk of how the group could make the experience a more positive one, there was still a common thread of concern that this is going to be very disruptive. Lisa Baymler of Lyle’s Shoes looked over the maps that showed off the detours and noted that this isn’t just going to impact businesses, it affects everyone. Without finding ways to get people to come do business and providing everyone convenient travel, this would be frustrating. Those seeking fuel, healthcare, groceries, liquor, access to schools and the courthouse, will all likely need to add in a little time to their schedules.
When asked just how this construction will affect business, several business owners said it would have significant impact because a fair amount of business comes from those passing through Wadena. If they are detoured around Wadena, the concern is they’ll never even know what the community has to offer.
Baymler said a lot of her traffic is people coming from out of town. If it’s not easy to get to her, they may go elsewhere.
“They won’t go through construction unless there is some draw to add to it,” Baymler said.
She helped lead the meeting because she wanted to pull the businesses together so that the group could work together to help each other under a unified front.
“My Saturday traffic is not locals typically at all, it is people that are traveling through town and they catch the window,” Paulette Ohm of 1776 Clothing Company said. “They don’t even know Wadena exists per se. How do you capture them if they don’t even know you exist?”
Bower recalled being a part of a different municipality that did not get the word out in front of construction, and how that lack of preparedness had major negative impact on the businesses.
“My passion is to get the word out so that will never happen again the same way,” Bower said.
Kyle Gylsen, of KWAD radio station in Wadena, offered a glimmer of hope to those thinking this was doom and gloom. He recalled the “Big Dig” days and said that despite how that stopped traffic from flowing through town, it really didn’t hurt businesses that bad, he said.
“Everybody was saying businesses are going to close downtown and it really didn’t happen,” Gylsen said. “We had a plan, good signage and everybody knew what was going on. It wasn’t a record breaking year, but we didn’t close 15 businesses downtown.”
“Name that name” contest
As part of giving the community ownership and getting more people involved in making this construction a positive one, the group decided that the positive project and group needs a name. The last time Hwy 71 was ripped up it was labeled the “Big Dig.” Now you have a chance to name this project and group that seeks to minimize negativity of road work, with a chance to win $100 in chamber bucks.
A handful of businesses will have entry forms available for you to enter a name into the running. The deadline to get your name in is Aug. 16. Visit these businesses to enter and help get behind changing the narrative of this project into a more happy ending. Businesses include: The Boondocks, Burger King, Central MN Credit Union, City Hall, Lyle's Shoes State Farm, Wadena County Historical Museum, Wadena Municipal Liquor Store and Wadena Pioneer Journal.