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Low-key event puts stamp on years of efforts to get bypass on Highway 23

A groundbreaking ceremony for the Highway 23 bypass was held Saturday, with Bob Dols, chairman of the Highway 23 Task Force from Willmar, left, and Paynesville Mayor Jeff Thompson, on hand. The $32 million project is expected to be completed in August of 2012. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

PAYNESVILLE -- Since he began working on the project nearly 14 years ago, Paynesville Mayor Jeff Thompson has been waiting for the day when ground would be broken on the state Highway 23 bypass around his town.

During a ceremonial groundbreaking Saturday in a soybean stubble field where an exit will be located, Thompson said now he can't wait for the ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the end of the project. It will be another long wait.

The $32 million project that will bring a four-lane divided bypass around the west and north sides of Paynesville, is expected to take three years. The completion date is Aug. 31, 2012.

But for most of the 35 people standing around a large circle Saturday during the low-key groundbreaking, another three years won't matter that much. What matters is that the project is happening.

Jeff Bertram, Paynesville city councilman and former state representative, said the project isn't about benefitting the numerous people who've worked on getting a four-lane highway from Willmar to St. Cloud since the early 90s, it's about helping people like his two young sons who were at the ground-breaking.

"It's for the next generation," Bertram said.

The 7½-mile bypass is an important part of the "bigger picture" of creating a regional four-lane highway that could eventually stretch from Worthington to Duluth, Willmar Mayor Les Heitke said.

A Highway 23 Task Force, made up of individuals from communities along the highway corridor, lobbied hard for decades to get segments of a four-lane highway built in west central Minnesota.

After the Highway 23 four-lane from Willmar to New London was underway, they set sights on the next segment through Paynesville. Chairman of that committee, Bob Dols of Willmar, was a tireless warrior, hosting local meetings and traveling to Washington, D.C. to lobby for funding.

"No one worked harder on this than Bob Dols," said Bertram.

Thompson said there are "many entities to thank" for getting this leg of the four-lane Highway 23 project done, including Rep. Collin Peterson, D- Minn., even though Paynesville is "only about half a mile into his district."

He credited Peterson for speeding up the project in the log-jam of road construction projects eligible for federal funding.

Peterson, a pilot, intended to be at the event but a low cloud cover prevented his travel.

Tom Meium, staff assistant for Peterson, said if he was there Peterson would've called it a "really good day" and an example of rural Minnesota communities working together.

Rep. Michelle Fischbach, of Paynesville, said she was pleased the project was underway. "I'm really happy this is happening."

Thompson thanked the residents of Paynesville in advance for putting up with construction for the next three years and the "bumps in the road" that come along with it.

Dave Solsrud, assistant district engineer from the Minnesota Department of Transportation office in Willmar, thanked the community for its support of the project and asked for their patience as construction takes place.

When completed, the project will improve the "quality of life" for Minnesota travelers, said Solsrud. "That's our goal at MnDOT."

Because of good weather, preliminary construction work began last week.

Karla Abramson, president of KGM Contractors, Inc., of Angora - the prime contractor for the project - said her company is excited to be working in Paynesville and is eager to "give something back to your community."

The project is located north of New London, from east of Kandiyohi County Road 6 to west of 263rd Ave. in Paynesville. It includes grading, paving, construction of eight bridges and lighting.

According to MnDOT, the initial phase of construction will begin with grading and bridge operations south of the Crow River and First Street.

A second grading operation will start north of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

During the 2010 construction season, a total of four bridges will be constructed including additional grading operations.

Highway 23 traffic will not encounter delays during the first two years of construction.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750