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Ribbon cutting ceremony marks end of Highway 23 bypass project

Paynesville resident Don Zahler watches contractors preparing land Thursday that now borders the new Highway 23 bypass for development. A McDonald's restaurant will be the first business to open there. Zahler said residents in the Paynesville community appreciate the reduction of in-town traffic and noise, but are also concerned about how the lack of traffic will affect some businesses on what is now Business 23. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

What lies ahead quickly became the topic as the Minnesota Department of Transportation hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony for the completion of the Trunk Highway 23 bypass at Paynesville on Thursday.

"The work is not done. It is just beginning,'' said State Senator Joe Gimse, R, Willmar, to a crowd gathered at the American Legion Post in Paynesville for the event. He was speaking in reference to calls from the Highway 23 coalition that lobbied for the bypass "to fill the gaps'' and develop the remaining two-lane segments between Willmar and St. Cloud into a four-lane road. The $32.2 million Paynesville bypass project was completed one month ahead of schedule, opening on July 20. KGM Contractors Inc., developed the 7.5 mile, four-lane bypass that skirts the town's north side.

"We made it happen because a lot of people worked together from both sides of the aisle,'' said U.S. Representative Collin Peterson, DFL, Thief River Falls. Peterson said that he, Republican Congressman Mark Kennedy, and U.S. Senators Norm Coleman, R, and Mark Dayton, DFL, all agreed to set aside their earmarks in 2002 to provide $10.1 million in federal funding to make the project happen.

He's not so sure the project could win the federal support today, or at the least, would still be 10 years from completion. Peterson said his colleagues have ended earmarks, and bipartisan cooperation is rare.

Obtaining state funding for transportation is also a far bigger challenge today, but Bob Dols of Willmar is undeterred. Dols led the highway 23 coalition that was successful in lining up state and federal support. He said they remain committed to finding ways to develop Highway 23 into a four-lane highway. "All I can is we're not going away. We're going to fill the gap.''

Senator Gimse, chair of the transportation committee, said after the ceremony that he believes those gaps could be filled in the near future, possibly in four to five years. He said he will be unveiling a transportation proposal that would allow regional corridors to invest local monies to leverage state transportation bond monies to develop new projects. The proposal will include the possibility of a local wheel-age tax, use of tax increment and possibly a dedicated, local sales tax. Corridors willing to put some of their own ''skin in the game'' could move forward on projects like this, he said.

The bypass project went forward with support from the City of Paynesville, but it was and remains a difficult issue in the community. Mayor Jeff Thompson said the bypass enjoyed support from many residents, who wanted to reduce traffic congestion and the noise of truck traffic. The busy Highway 23 route through the center of town literally divided it in half.

He expressed optimism that the new bypass will promote economic development in the community, thanks to the expanded transportation capability. As he spoke, contractors were already developing lots at the Veteran's Drive access from the bypass to the community. A McDonald's restaurant will be the first business to open at the site.

But the mayor said he is also concerned about the losses that businesses that relied on Highway 23 traffic in town are already feeling. A truck stop and convenience store on the east side of the community have seen big drops in traffic on what is now Business 23, he noted.

Traffic and consequently business is down on the west end of Business 23 as well. "Definitely, just as I had expected,' said Dave Lange, of H & L Express.

The Shell gas station and A & W restaurant is located at what had been the intersection of Highways 23 and 55. Lange will be erecting a billboard along the bypass in hopes of persuading motorists to travel the short distance to his business, but worries. "People don't usually go out of their way for gas.''

Another business owner, who asked not to be identified, pointed to MnDOT traffic numbers from 2009 showing that Highway 23 carried an average daily count of 8,700 vehicles as compared to 2,850 vehicles on Highway 55 at that intersection. The highway location brought new customers to his doors every week, but he's now lost the largest share of that traffic, he said.

Sue Patzke operates the Antique Cellar near the center of town on Business 23. She said she is also concerned about keeping regular customers, who have told her they are confused about how to get into town from the new bypass.

Patzke said she and other business owners in the community are frustrated with the difficulties of erecting signage along the bypass to bring customers to their doors.

Affected businesses are hosting a meeting at 6 p.m. on Monday at the Paynesville Area Center to discuss their concerns after a month of experience with the bypass.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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