Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Jul-Aug 2019 issue

Focus on Small Cities: MnDOT Road Projects Help Two Small Cities Revitalize Downtown

By Tad Simons

A decade ago, Parkers Prairie and Battle Lake were the sort of sleepy, side-of-the-highway towns that people tend to drive through and immediately forget. Located in Otter Tail County in west-central Minnesota, both cities had a state trunk highway running through town that also served as the main street, and both were hit hard by the recession.

Today, Parkers Prairie and Battle Lake are still small (population 1,011 and 931, respectively), but passers-by stop more often, new businesses have opened, residents regularly walk and bike into town, and everyone feels a little safer crossing the street.

One key factor contributing to these rebounds is a decision by both cities several years ago to use the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) scheduled highway repairs as a catalyst for a wide range of community improvements. These upgrades included new bike paths, storefront renovations, professional landscaping, decorative light posts, public art, and many other new infrastructure developments.

“It depends on the community, but these projects often present a one-time opportunity to address several infrastructure needs at once,” says Brian Bausman, the MnDOT project manager behind the Parkers Prairie project. “We do lots of outreach. Starting five to six years out, we bring all the players together to talk about the possibilities, to let them know that there are grants and other funds available, and to help them coordinate a design plan.”

Reclaiming highway real estate

One important feature implemented in both Parkers Prairie and Battle Lake is what MnDOT calls a “road diet” for those state trunk highways going through town.

Highway engineers spent the 1950s and 1960s expanding the nation’s highway system to accommodate the growing number of cars on the road. Road diets are a way to reclaim some of that real estate by reducing or narrowing the number of lanes on a road, opening up more space for pedestrians and cyclists.

The most common form of road diet—the one used in Battle Lake—turns a four-lane road into a two-lane road with a left turn lane in the middle. Other forms, such as the one used in Parkers Prairie, narrow existing lanes to slow traffic and add more space for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, curb bump-outs, and other traffic-calming features.

Restriping roads in this way may not seem like a big deal, but it can have a dramatic impact on how motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians use the road, particularly when such projects are combined with a civic push to upgrade other local amenities.

More people stopping for lunch or gas means more money for local businesses. More residents walking and biking into town means more community interaction. Add artfully designed benches, eye-catching public sculptures, and planter boxes full of flowers—as Battle Lake has done— and suddenly “downtown” isn’t just a humble row of storefronts; it’s a “destination,” a place people want to go and visit.

Road diets also make roads—particularly the sort of four-lane trunk highway that cuts through Parkers Prairie and Battle Lake—considerably safer. Narrowing or eliminating lanes reduces both average vehicle speed and the number of variables that contribute to accidents, such as vehicles going at different speeds, changing lanes, and rear-end collisions while trying to turn.

These types of projects also often include sidewalk bump-outs to improve pedestrian sightlines, bike lanes to separate cyclists from motorists, clearer crosswalk striping, better lighting, and other safety features. “It’s much easier to see pedestrians now, and more people are riding bikes, so we’re watching out for them too,” says Battle Lake City Clerk Val Martin. “You can really tell the difference.”

And in Parkers Prairie, where school kids and residents of the local senior home cross the highway every day, the safety improvements have been “wonderful,” says City Clerk Beth Wussow.

Catalyst for change

To make all of this happen, both Parkers Prairie and Battle Lake used MnDOT’s scheduled repaving of their main street to galvanize local residents in a communitywide effort to improve and beautify their towns. But they didn’t do it alone.

Both communities worked with MnDOT planners and PartnerSHIP 4 Health, a state-funded organization comprised of the combined public health departments of Becker, Clay, Otter Tail, and Wilken counties. As it happens, MnDOT road reconstruction projects offer cities an opportunity to maximize their development potential at minimal cost.

“Lots of Minnesota towns are located along these trunk highways, and the highway is the main drag,” says Patrick Hollister, a PartnerSHIP 4 Health advocate who worked on both the Parkers Prairie and Battle Lake projects. “MnDOT has these road improvement projects scheduled 10 years out, but I try to get involved at least four or five years out, because these things take a lot of planning,” says Hollister, who is currently working with citizens of Pelican Rapids to prepare for 2024 road reconstruction.

The Parkers Prairie/Battle Lake road projects were originally scheduled for a standard mill and overlay, for example, but both city councils petitioned MnDOT to upgrade their projects to a full reconstruction. In addition to road improvements and restriping, a full reconstruction opens the door for financial assistance to include such upgrades as new sidewalks, landscaping, and lighting fixtures, all of which are much cheaper if done in conjunction with a full reconstruction.

“When one of these projects comes up, and the timing is right, we talk to the cities and tell them that if they’re interested, they have a chance to make a real difference, to bring the community together, and to improve their town’s quality of life,” says Hollister.

Creating opportunities for economic development is also part of the appeal. “One point I like to emphasize is tourism. If they can make walking and biking more pleasant and safe, it helps tourism, which helps economic development,” he says.

Battle Lake’s economic revival

Battle Lake’s road reconstruction project coincided with a community vision and plan already in process that included a new 12-mile bike trail from Battle Lake to nearby Glendalough State Park.

Improved storefronts, planter boxes, and contributions from local artisans extended the vision. One local group decorated benches with colorful mosaic tiles. And Elk River sculptor Sue Seeger built a 14-foot-tall fish sculpture that resides at the end of a public alley now called the “Art Stream.” The alley includes outlines of sea life on the pavement, which children can color with chalk.

Combined, all of these efforts have resulted in a remarkable economic revival for Battle Lake. “Back in 2008, the town was in a panic,” says Dan Malmstrom, a local citizen and consultant who was instrumental in creating Battle Lake’s vision plan and led the grant-writing/fundraising effort necessary to get the Glendalough trail built.

“The town was struggling economically, the schools were in decline, storefronts and businesses were in disrepair or closed,” Malmstrom says. “People were exhausted, and there didn’t seem to be any solutions.”

Battle Lake had a vision for itself, but no way to realize it. “Then the highway 78 overlay project came along, and it was a eureka moment,” he says. “Everything started to fall into place.”

MnDOT’s road diet reconstruction project and the Glendalough trail were finished in 2014. Since then, 22 new businesses have opened in Battle Lake, including several restaurants and a hotel. Tourism in winter has even improved.

“There used to be only one restaurant in town that stayed open all winter, and now there are four or five,” says City Clerk Martin.

Building on its success, Battle Lake’s next big project is its Hatchery Road development, which will transform an entire block into a public gathering place and the site of a new apartment complex downtown.

A prettier Parkers Prairie

In Parkers Prairie, safety and beautification were the main priorities. Pedestrian safety was improved through wider sidewalks and bump-outs compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as a flashing crossing beacon where children regularly cross the highway on their way to and from school.

Working with MnDOT Landscape Architect Todd Carroll, city planners also redesigned the sidewalks to include brickwork patterns that reflect the façade of the historic town hall building. And a $10,000 grant through MnDOT’s Community Roadside Landscape Partnership Program allowed City Clerk Wussow to purchase 1,000 plants—prairie grasses, perennials, and several trees—which now line the town’s main boulevard.

“Because of our name, we wanted it to feel like a walk through the prairie, so there are lots of prairie grasses and wildflowers and lilies,” says Wussow. “We get a lot of compliments on how pretty it is now, and the brick pattern on the sidewalk ties it all together.”

Tad Simons is a freelance writer from St. Paul.

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