MILAN — The campground at Randall’s Milan Beach Resort on Lac qui Parle Lake filled up with RVs as an armada of boats bobbed on the choppy waters of the lake on the opening weekend of the fishing season.
Business owners Jeff and Stephanie Randall once again served up what they advertise as the “best steak on the lake” to a full house of patrons, no masks required.
It all looked like a return to normal last weekend, but it’s still not business as usual at Randall’s Milan Beach Resort, said the Randalls.
Work on the historic stonework for the Milan Bridge on state Highway 40 is still not complete. There is a sheet pile cofferdam in place to allow the work. As a result, the anglers who sometimes line the bridge shoulder-to-shoulder, and parts of the adjacent shoreline, are not yet back.
“We sell lots of little things,” said Jeff Randall. The loss of sales for scoops of minnows, snacks and to-go sandwiches these anglers would otherwise purchase represents a continued financial hit for this business.
It’s reeling from a double whammy. The $7.7 million project to replace the bridge got underway May 10, 2019. The Randalls braced for a six-month disruption to the business as the bridge replacement required a detour that kept most of the traffic away from this location.
High water disrupted the bridge replacement project, said Paul Rasmussen, project engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation in Willmar. The bridge contractor, Robert S. Schroeder Construction, of Glenwood, continued work into the winter. It was able to open the bridge to one-way traffic in July 2020, and two-way traffic the following November.
But 2020 brought even bigger challenges for Randall’s Milan Beach Resort. The COVID-19 pandemic meant empty tables in the restaurant. The business was able to obtain some Paycheck Protection Program help, said the Randalls, but the small business did not get the help that many other COVID-impacted businesses did.
To qualify for help, they had to show a loss in 2020 as compared to 2019. With sales down significantly in 2019 due to the bridge work, it was hard to do.
They are frustrated, they said, as they watch work continue on the historic stonework that is keeping a portion of their sales away for a third year.
“This is the third fishing opener that we’ve seen the bridge impede business as far as people fishing,” said Jeff Randall.
“Yes, we’ve definitely had some challenges,” said Rasmussen in speaking about the overall project. He said Mother Nature has provided most of the challenges, starting with the high waters of 2019.
This spring, the weather has again been an issue. Workers with Artistic Stone and Concrete, of St. Joseph, have all of the original stones from the 1930s Works Progress Administration Project back in place on the shorelines on both the west and east ends of the bridge. Workers with the company originally removed 24,000 square feet of granite stone riprap, and hand-placed the stones one by one to restore the shoreline to its original, historic characteristics.
“Too many,” said Max Snyder, a worker with Artistic Stone and Concrete, when asked how many stones have had to be moved. “I couldn’t even give you a ballpark figure,” he added.
Snyder and Rasmussen said this spring’s work had been held up by cool temperatures. The grouting work had to be delayed because nighttime temperatures kept sinking into the 30s.
Snyder and his fellow workers said work has also been delayed by add-ons to the original work, including work on a stone stairway. They also pointed out that strict requirements placed on the project to meet the original historic characteristics have added challenges.
Placing the stone is a lot different today than in the 1930s, when the WPA project brought hundreds of workers to the site.
“Not a lot of stonemasons around,” Rasmussen said of one of the challenges faced today. “It’s not a common field of endeavor.”
Rasmussen and workers at the site said they are hopeful of getting the project completed sometime in June. They all add a word of caution: Rains could delay progress.
With words not quite so polite, Snyder said Mother Nature has not been nice to the project.
The remaining stonework still to be completed is on the east side of the bridge, closest to the resort. Work on the west side is completed, although some work will be done to move riprap that sloughed into the water due to ice.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources also intends to replace the fishing pier at the bridge site when the work is completed as well, according to Colin Wright, parks and trails supervisor in Spicer. The pier was damaged by flooding and ice a couple of years ago. Wright noted that shoreline fishing opportunities on Lac qui Parle Lake are limited, and he is hopeful of replacing the pier when possible.
Jeff Randall is hopeful that anglers will return to the popular fishing spot once work is done, but he said he cannot anticipate a banner year.
Downstream at the Churchill Dam, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is undertaking a two-year, $5.7 million project to modernize the dam. Lake levels will be kept down for the sake of the project, said Randall, and that doesn’t make for the best fishing.
As the only business affected directly by all of this, Randall said he knows his lone voice is not going get him anywhere.
“It’s beyond frustrating,” he said. “I don’t know who to turn to.”