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New Richmond looks at impact of St. Croix Crossing

Construction of the new St. Croix Crossing and its approaches is well underway on both sides of the St. Croix River. The above photo from July 18 shows what will become the Highway 64/35 and County Road E interchange just east of Houlton Elementary School. (Photo by Mike Demulling)

A study of communities that built new major river bridges will help local municipalities know what to expect and what to avoid, says New Richmond City Administrator Mike Darrow.

“It’s an exciting time because it feels like a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” said Darrow of planning for the impact of the new St. Croix Crossing that is expected to open in 2016 and improve the commute from New Richmond to the Twin Cities.

Darrow said the City Council and staff will spend the next couple of years looking at the existing infrastructure and making sure it’s in ideal shape to meet the needs of the current population.

The study, commissioned by St. Croix County and being done by two UW-Extension professors and a graduate student, looks at projects in Shakopee, Minn., St. Louis, Mo., Charleston, S.C., and Parkersburg, W. Va., and identified these key lessons:

• Cross-community collaboration is necessary.

• The cultural and environmental impact of the bridge should be emphasized.

• The bridge should be made a focal point.

• Communities should maintain realistic expectations.

• Municipalities should not “over plan” for the future.

The study says communities should use the stacks of statistics to stimulate discussion, affirm or challenge current perceptions, identify local strengths and weaknesses and recognize and prepare for change.

“I look at this as baseline information,” said Darrow, explaining that rather than assuming what will happen, the intent is to look at other communities to see what did happen.

“I think the big thing everyone’s asking is ‘What is the population going to be?’” said Darrow. While it’s a given that the number of residents will grow, as it has in the last decades, it’s impossible to predict a rate of growth.

“Nobody knows what the population is going to be in 2020 – not one person,” said Darrow.

He said the city can do a development plan, but while the new bridge may make it more attractive to live in Wisconsin and work across the river, greater ability to work from home and cost of gasoline are factors too.

“It doesn’t always have to be about growth,” added Darrow. “It can be about preserving the unique characteristics of the City of New Richmond.”

Just as important as population growth are the impacts the new river crossing will have on the area’s culture and environment. Along those lines, municipalities must plan for parks, open space, runoff, reducing sprawl and making sure historic places are preserved, said Darrow.

The advice to make the bridge a focal point means making sure it’s properly designed and includes walking and biking trails, said Darrow: “It’s not just something that gets you to and fro.”

He said policymakers must be fiscally prudent, learn from the experience of other communities and not invest in services for a population that never comes.

“I think patience is a good attribute – and having a plan,” said Darrow, advising preparing to adapt but not starting.

“This year is really taking inventory of the existing infrastructure,” he said, noting that for the next couple of years, the city will look at the streets, sidewalks, utilities and water and sewer lines.

Rather than expanding, New Richmond will make sure services meet the needs of the city’s current population, he said.

“There’s not a multi-million dollar plant that needs to be constructed,” said Darrow; instead the city will look at the condition of its infrastructure.

He said planning will continue as the council holds its budget meetings and works on its capital improvement process. In August the council will begin meeting at various departments to tour facilities and talk about five-year goals.

Studies show that some communities overspent for growth that never happened, said Darrow.

“They’re going to be hurting, and we don’t want to make that mistake,” he said. “If you build it and they don’t come, then you’re in trouble, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

Now is a good time for residents to be involved, said Darrow.

Additional findings of the UW-Extension study will be presented at a future meeting of the St. Croix Crossing economic impact advisory committee, said Bill Rubin, executive director of the St. Croix Economic Development Corporation.

Darrow said residents may attend upcoming City Council meetings and go along on tours. Council members and city staff will attend events and meetings to visit with residents as well as speak at groups such as Vision 2020 and Rotary.

Residents can also contribute by following the City of New Richmond on Facebook and Twitter.

“This is a really interesting time to be a part of the community,” concluded Darrow.

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.

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