Columbus to businesses: Big things are afoot

Photos by Ryan Howard Attendees at Columbus’s April 20 ColumBiz business forum check out maps of upgrades coming to the State Highway 97 bridge and County Road 54.
Photos by Ryan Howard
Attendees at Columbus’s April 20 ColumBiz business forum check out maps of upgrades coming to the State Highway 97 bridge and County Road 54.

Ryan Howard
News Editor
Julie Parent
Columbus Reporter

At the ninth annual gathering of city’s businesses and at the city’s most recent council meeting, Columbus was celebrating its recent and upcoming growth and looking into how the city can further develop in the future.

Road and bridge

Several city and business representatives attended the ninth ColumBiz, the city’s annual business forum, April 20 at Running Aces Casino and Harness Park.

During the meeting, representatives from Anoka County and the Minnesota Department of Transportation gave updates to the crowd on the State Highway 97/Lake Drive Northeast bridge construction planning as well as the realignment of County Road 54/West Freeway Drive.

Anoka County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah praised the partnership between the city, the council and MnDOT in getting the bridge project to where it is today.

“It takes all of us working together to move projects forward,” she said.

Plans to resurface approximately 6 miles of Interstate 35 in 2017, 2018 and 2019 are moving forward. Part of those plans include replacing the Highway 97 Bridge over I-35, which was also discussed at the April 12 Columbus City Council meeting. MnDOT engineer Ryan Coddington explained that the state will open bids for the project in June and start preparatory work in July, with most of the major construction work starting next year. Thanks to an Anoka County commitment to fund the $6 million additional cost if the increased funding is not approved by the state, the bridge will be a four-lane, rather than a two-lane, roadway, designed with diverging diamond interchanges that allow drivers to make left turns without driving through cross traffic.

“Clearly, based on the traffic that lines up every morning, we need to have a full (four-lane) interchange,” Sivarajah said.

The state will also install overhead and pedestrian lights on the bridge. When finished, the name of the city will appear on both sides of the barrier. The cost to add the lettering to the barrier is $5,775. In addition, the city will be responsible for operating and maintaining pedestrian lighting, trails, minor signal maintenance and maintaining the city-themed aesthetic elements on the bridge.

Coddington noted that a public relations firm will work with business owners and residents affected by the construction project to make sure that locals can be accommodated as much as possible during the process. Though the bridge will remain partially open for the majority of its reconstruction, there will be periods, up to 40 days long, in which the bridge or some of the exits on and off the roadway will be closed.

Coddington said MnDOT wants to be as responsive to businesses as possible and added that though the reconstruction process will be inconvenient or painful at times, “Once it’s done, it’s going to be very nice.”

District 31B Rep. Cal Bahr speaks to the crowd during ColumBiz as Rep. Bob Dettmer, of neighboring District 39A, looks on.
District 31B Rep. Cal Bahr speaks to the crowd during ColumBiz as Rep. Bob Dettmer, of neighboring District 39A, looks on.

During ColumBiz, Sivarajah also delved into the realignment of County Road 54, which will move the road west (just to the east of the Running Aces parking lot), distancing its intersection with Lake Drive from the new bridge. The realigned road will also feature two roundabouts, one at the Lake Drive intersection and one near the Running Aces parking lot, and Sivarajah added that an important part of the project included preparing the road for future accesses needed by businesses that could locate along the street. Bids for the project will be opened this fall, with construction beginning in earnest next spring and completing in the fall of 2018.

Other development

City leaders briefly highlighted the senior-focused housing development soon to be built by Woodland Development between Running Aces and Gander Mountain. The Preiners Preserve final plat was approved during the April 12 City Council meeting, and 30 detached townhomes will be built in the 8.4-acre development, with work starting this summer. An association will take care of the lawn care and snow removal for these townhome owners (learn more about the development in The Times’ April 6 Progress edition article, “New development marks new horizon for Columbus”).
Running Aces President and CEO Taro Ito also gave a brief update on the progress of the Grand Stay hotel that will be built adjacent to the casino and racetrack. Though Running Aces had hoped to start construction by now, it took the business longer than expected to fulfill all of the watershed requirements before building. Ito now expects construction to begin in September and added that the business has been working to make the hotel’s design complementary with the casino, which he said will also be getting a small face-lift to correspond with the hotel’s construction.

“We really think that’s going to bring a lot of business (and) economic development to the city of Columbus,” he said.

Community identity

Columbus Mayor Dave Povolny and City Administrator Elizabeth Mursko told the audience that many local businesses had told the city that Columbus’s business environment would be helped by fostering a stronger community identity. Many Columbus businesses state in their marketing material that they’re located in Forest Lake, simply because more people know where Forest Lake is. Mursko said out-of-towners frequently confuse Columbus with similarly named cities in other states, or they think the area that comprises Columbus is actually just a part of Forest Lake.

“The city is focusing on branding,” Povolny said.

When the Highway 97 bridge is finished, the city’s Columbus branding on both sides will be a part of the self-promotion, but this year’s ColumBiz also included small group discussions of other ways the city could let people know where Columbus is and what it has to offer. Ideas included more media outreach, advertising and creating greater visibility for local businesses. Povolny also encouraged local businesses to let the city know how Columbus can continue to help the city spur economic development.

“The last thing you want is government guessing,” he said.