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'Streetscape' experiment a potentially positive effect of bridge closure

Merchants, city officials, and Chamber of Commerce members are working toward a common goal, to make the historic district of Stillwater an even more attractive place for city residents and visitors alike, with or without the extra traffic flow caused by the downtown river crossing.

Together, they embarked on an experiment in "streetscape" enhancements, while the Stillwater Lift Bridge was closed for renovations. Usually, city rules are very protective of the historic downtown, to maintain its integrity. At the same time, merchants were very concerned about loss of traffic and potential customers with the closure of the bridge.

To enhance interest in the downtown and make it a more attractive place to shop, merchants suggested using "streetscape" innovations that add items of interest, "resting places" and events that would make the downtown more attractive to shoppers, a more lively place where they would like to spend more time.

After discussing possible streetscape enhancement projects, Stillwater officials agreed to allow several store owners to place benches, tables, and other inviting items in front of their businesses. The decision coincided with lesser traffic levels due to the temporary bridge closer.

Originally, 27 projects were proposed by downtown business owners. Six of those have come to fruition after being approved by the chief of police, city community development director, and the Streetcape Enhancement Committee.

Those six include WineStyles, Tamarack Gallery, St. Croix Drug, Willoughby's Arts and Antiques, Alesci Furniture Gallery, and Grand Games.

Almost half-way through the three-month trial period for having more "streetscape" atmosphere along Main Street, many owners and city officials called the experiment is a success. The grace period for having extra items outside storefronts is scheduled to end Nov. 1 or when the bridge reopens to traffic.

According to Stillwater City Councilmember Wally Milbrandt, the city government, chamber of commerce, and merchants will step back to re-evaluate the locations that have made additions to their storefronts, and go from there.

Fellow City Councilmember David Junker said merchants have done well with the downtown experiment, noting stores like Grand Games, which placed a table and chairs on the sidewalk in an attempt to invite people to play games outside the store, has worked out nicely.

Mary Schmidt, who grew up in Stillwater and is the owner of Grand Games, agrees. "It gives it more of a hometown, old-time Stillwater feel," said Schmidt while talking about walking downtown for candy or something to eat during her childhood.

Overall store owners believe adding to the cityscape is a positive, while the closing of the bridge has drawn mixed reviews.

Scott Zahren owns Alesci Furniture, 308 E. Chestnut St., and views the bridge closing as a positive. He said by eliminating the people who want to use the bridge just to get across the river makes for a more pleasant environment for those who want to shop and enjoy downtown.

"My preference would be build a new bridge, turn that thing into a pedesterian/bicycle bridge, and a bridge for emergency vehicles. It's nice for everyone. There are no traffic jams," said Zahren.

Milbrandt agrees. "The good news is with the bridge being closed, the [local] people are coming downtown."

On the north side of downtown, The River Market Community Co-Op has a less positive view of the bridge closing. The area's only major food co-op has suffered a decline in business since the closer of the bridge.

Jenn Posterick works at the co-op and has seen a drop in customers who live across the river. Posterick did mention there are a large number of dedicated co-op members who have helped make weathering the bridge closure and drop in customers more bearable.

"The members from across the bridge really make an effort to come over. They are making $400 to $500 shopping trips. We're the closest, still, and most convenient, co-op."

Despite the lack of vehicle traffic from across the bridge, Posterick has hopes the foot traffic will increase with the enhancement of the sidewalks.

"If we could adjust how we advertise our name, I think there are tasteful options we could explore. The streetscape project can only enhance our options."

David Cagle, owner of Wine Styles, 124 N. Main St., is fairly new in town and isn't entirely certain how the bridge has affected his business. Since opening in June, his business has grown, but he wondered if it could have been better.

"I'd like to blame the bridge, but I think it could be the weather, too," said Cagle.

Although Cagle's wine store is new to the district, he understands what a boost to the downtown streets of Stillwater could mean.

"The whole streetscape thing is really needed. If you go to other cities, you see the people out talking, musicians playing. ... That's what Stillwater has missed."

Council members, chamber members, and local business owners remain optimistic about the future of downtown Stillwater, bridge or no bridge.

"There are things the city and merchants can do to take great pride in for visitors and residents," said Junker.

Andy Blenkush may be reached at 651-439-4366 or