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What will the bridge bring?

Those who expect large population or economic growth in St. Croix County after the new Stillwater bridge opens in 2016 are probably in for disappointment, according to a new study.

Study results were presented to the St. Croix County Board last week by Matt Kures of UW-Extension’s Center for Community and Economic Development in Madison and Tom Gillaspy, former state demographer for Minnesota and now owner of Gillaspy Demographics in Stillwater, Minn.

These are some of their conclusions:

— While for decades, St. Croix County was among the fastest growing counties in the nation, it has not had net growth in the last three years. The county’s growth trends are influenced by demographic and economic shifts, and St. Croix is not likely to return to the growth rates of the 1990s and 2000s, even with the improved river crossing.

— Despite projected slower growth rates, St. Croix County’s population will continue to grow if there is no dramatic change in the regional or national economy.

— New residents of the corridor could support 750 to 850 private sector jobs over the next decade, but consumers may do their spending elsewhere.

— The relocation of large firms to the corridor based solely on the bridge is less probable. Most job growth in the region will be driven by expansion of existing companies and startups.

— The new bridge will not create opportunities to transport freight either west or east. But it will make it easier to ship to Twin Cities customers and provide better access to industry clusters – such as medical device producers, financial institutions or food processing companies — in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

— Even after the travel barrier is lifted, a city like Shakopee. Minn., will have far more jobs accessible with a 30- or 45-minute commute so St. Croix County will still be competing for commuters.

“We really don’t know what the true impacts of the crossing are going to be on the county as well as communities that sit at the foot of the crossing,” said Kures. He said growth brings new revenue, but it also brings new costs, adding that communities have the opportunity to shape their growth.

“If a community was growing in the past, it tends to grow in the future,” said Kures.

The study looked at five comparable infrastructure improvement projects around the country, ranging from the Bloomington Ferry Bridge in Scott County, Minn., to projects in Missouri and Illinois and West Virginia and Ohio.

Of the five projects, if a community was growing, it continued to grow, but if it was not growing much, a new bridge didn’t change that, said Kures.

He said economic and population growth are influenced by other factors, including the nation’s economy.

“The bridges themselves do not necessarily spur (employment) growth, but they do help facilitate growth going forward,” said Kures.

From the 1970s until the early 2000s, St. Croix County was among the 100 fastest growing counties in the country, but for the last three years the county has seen no real net growth, said Gillaspy.

He said the millennial generation is showing little inclination to buy houses and when they do, they buy in cities, not in rural areas. Those younger people tend to live in smaller houses and want to be closer in with less commuting, said Gillaspy.

St. Croix County’s population growth is mostly determined by people moving in, said Kures. A key segment of the housing market, those in the 30-39 age group, peaked in the metropolitan area in the 1990s and has gotten smaller since.

The intent of the study is to give communities information to help them plan for the economic and fiscal impact of the new crossing, said Kures. He said prime lessons learned from the comparison projects are cross-community collaboration is important, particularly for economic development efforts, and communities should maintain realistic expectations, “over plan” today for the future and emphasize the social, environmental and economic impacts of the bridge.

“So what’s your gut tell you?” asked County Board Member Roy Sjoberg, seeking a more definitive prediction on growth.

“My wife usually tells me not to trust my gut,” responded Kures.

“There is uncertainty, and we live in a very uncertain world, but here at least we would know pretty soon,” said Gillaspy. He said if there is going to be a lot of growth, it should be evident soon after the completion of the bridge.

Gillaspy concluded much of what happens growth-wise in St. Croix County depends upon what happens in the international and national economy and the housing market.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.