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Downtown construction study begins: Local businesses concerned about ongoing street work

Hastings city staff and the city council have begun talking about a potential construction project in downtown Hastings that could shorten crosswalks, improve water and sewer mains and improve pavement in the area.

The council recently hired Bolton & Menk, a Mankato-based engineering and surveying firm, to conduct a scoping project that will help the city prioritize improvements and find out how much can be done.

The scoping phase is expected to finish by April or May, City Engineer Nick Egger told the council. Once it’s finished, the city will be able to look at available funding and decide which improvements to move ahead with.

At a minimum, Egger said staff would like to see some of the work done in late summer or early fall of 2014. Depending on how much is ultimately included in the project, additional work may be planned for later years.

But there are some concerns among downtown business owners that additional construction would stress the downtown economy, especially since the area has already weathered road closures, detours and general construction activity due to the bridge project.

“All the business people are very concerned about this,” councilmember Joe Balsanek said.

Downtown construction is a double-edged sword, Balsanek said. On one hand, improvements are nice; on the other, they can impede business.

Ground broke on the bridge project in September of 2010. Kevin Hoeschen, owner of the Town Cobbler and president of the Downtown Business Association, said he expects finish work to continue into next year, stretching the project out over nearly four years.

“I think we’ve suffered enough for four years,” Hoeschen said.

Down the street at Berens Jewlers, owner Tony Berens has seen his business slow because of the work.

“Bridge construction has cut down customer traffic,” he said.

Once the bridge work started, he saw 15 to 20 percent fewer customers than he had prior to construction. The last couple weeks, when Second Street was closed under the bridge, it was worse.

“It was a ghost town down here,” he said.

If the city does decide to launch its own project downtown next year, the businesses won’t get any break from construction. And when people see safety cones and construction, they stay away, Hoeschen said.

This isn’t the first time Second Street business owners have dealt with this issue. The mid-1980s was the last time Second Street was reconstructed. That time, the entire street was dug up, Berens recalled, and his business saw total sales drop 10 to 15 percent.

At this point, it doesn’t appear that upcoming work would tear up the entire street. Water and sewer improvements could be done with a method that doesn’t require the whole system to be exposed.

With the project still in the pre-planning phase, downtown businesses can’t really say exactly what impact future work will have. If it’s relatively minor, Berens said he’s not too concerned.

“If it’s minor construction, I don’t have a problem with any of it,” he said.

And while he’s confident his business could survive even another major project, he said, others might not be so fortunate.

Hoeschen prefers the city hold off on improvements so businesses have some time to recover from the bridge project.

“I’d like to have them wait a couple years,” he said.

At the last city council meeting, Mayor Paul Hicks said that the scoping study will address some of the concerns downtown businesses have, and will be a good educational moment for those involved.

Balsanek encouraged city staff and the council to keep people informed as the study advances.