By Andrew Tellijohn
To the naked eye, the reconstruction of Broadway Street in downtown Alexandria may have looked much like any other improvement project. The four-month project between Third and Eighth avenues added benches, trees, a bicycle and walking path, and shorter crosswalks.
But the $5.7 million project also went underground to deal with aging infrastructure during a busy tourism season, creating hardships city staff knew the local business community would have to deal with, says City Engineer Tim Schoonhoven.
Planning and communicating
Because of the project’s complexity and disruption to downtown businesses, city leaders knew public involvement and good communication would be critical to its success. They started working on that more than four years before they actually broke ground, Schoonhoven explains.
City officials began collaborating in 2010 with the Downtown Merchants Association, Explore Alexandria Tourism, Alexandria Economic Development, Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, and other stakeholders. This gave the city substantial time to get input and plan for whatever hardships might occur during construction.
Three public visioning sessions in 2010 each drew more than 60 people. The sessions offered residents and business representatives the opportunity to give their input on design, and many of their ideas were incorporated into the final details.
In addition, stakeholders formed the Redesigning of Alexandria’s Downtown (R.O.A.D.) Committee to develop communications with residents about the project. The group was made up of representatives from the business community, city staff, local media, tourism professionals, public health officials, and a representative from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
Their efforts included creating and maintaining a website and a Facebook page; developing a marketing plan with advertising, newsletters, and banners; and distributing flyers with maps and detour routes.
“It was above and beyond, and it was intended to be above and beyond,” Schoonhoven says.
The city’s great communications, along with its ability to meet the goals, budget, and schedule of the project, earned it a League of Minnesota Cities 2015 City of Excellence Award.
Details of the project
What made this street project so complex? The answer is in what lay beneath the surface.
Underneath the street and in the basements of 120-year-old businesses and other downtown buildings, city contractors had to remove old, asbestos-lined pipes once used by a long-abandoned steam plant, and replace aging water and sewer lines that had not been touched in about 75 years.
Complicating matters even more, those pipes had become convenient conduits for crossing the street with power lines, television cables, and water services.
“You couldn’t just break into them and remove them,” says Schoonhoven.
And, oh yeah, many of those old buildings had hand-laid, unmortared rock foundations.
“We had to push into every single basement with new water lines and connect to new sewer lines,” he says. “We had plumbers in every basement, and we had to push through these rocks and try to not have the buildings fall into the street. It was something else.”
The project was broken into three phases, with no work on any future phase starting before the existing one was completed. That created some challenges, Schoonhoven says, as some of the pipe removals would reach a certain point and then have to stop until the rest of the phase was completed. But it also ensured that no business would have construction in front of its shop for more than six weeks.
“The project itself was tremendously difficult,” he says. “The hard design of the project was also difficult. It was tremendously concentrated. You can imagine the game-time decisions you have to make.”
But the communication that started before the project began continued throughout. Mayor Sara Carlson also played a role in keeping the public engaged with regular radio appearances and a weekly update in the local Alexandria newspaper—including when things went wrong.
For example, one construction snafu had to be fixed, and it slowed progress for a couple days. Carlson wrote and spoke about what happened and how it would be fixed—and business continued as normally as possible.
“The main thing really was all the communication,” Carlson says. “I can’t tell you how many people I had come up to me who said, ‘I read your article every week. Thank you for keeping us abreast of what’s going on.’ Communication and transparency helped every time.”
Fun happenings also helped. The R.O.A.D. Committee organized events, like a Wine & Art Crawl and a street dance, to keep people coming downtown. It also helped communicate to people that most businesses remained open during construction and were accessible through back entrances.
Businesses appreciated efforts
While uncontrollable inconveniences were expected and did occur throughout the construction process, local business owners and groups were generally pleased with how everything played out, and they appreciated the city’s efforts.
Coni McKay, executive director at the Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, says the business community largely understood that while there would be some short-term pain associated with the project, the reconstruction needed to be done and would be a positive in the long run.
She credited forward thinking at City Hall—particularly from then assistant city planner Karin Tank—which helped establish the strong collaboration that took place. Tank, she says, learned several years ago of plans for a major project on Broad¬way and immediately started looking for ways to make the process run smoothly.
McKay also thought getting MnDOT involved early—with a public affairs specialist actually sitting on the R.O.A.D. Committee—was a stroke of genius that paved the way for a better plan.
“We were five years ahead of the game,” she says.
The city’s early notice to businesses was helpful to the Alexandria Area Arts Association. Although the group was not able to keep its theater open, and thus lost about 45 days of its season, leaders knew about that far enough in advance that they were able to plan for the late opening, says Ben Klipfel, executive director of the arts association and president of the Down¬town Merchants Association. The city truly did the best it could to address those types of situations, he says, adding that the investment in events that drew people downtown helped, as did making money available for storefront renovations.
“They included us as a nonprofit from the beginning,” Klipfel says. “We were involved in conversations. They met regularly with the Downtown Merchants Association.”
Project paid dividends
And the end result has been worth it. The sidewalks are wider, allowing the theater to move people out faster after a show. The area is more attractive. And people have been coming out to see the new and improved downtown.
“We had a great year,” Klipfel says. “Part of that was the shows. The other part was people wanting to come down and see what downtown was about. I think the city did a great job.”
Schoonhoven and Carlson both acknowledge that they could not predict all the challenges that would arise from a project of this scope, but they add that through communication and teamwork, the issues were minimized to a large degree.
“There is no way for it not to be disruptive,” Schoonhoven says. “As much work as we did, it was majorly disruptive. But when we’re all working together, kind of on the same team, you get through those things. You build a level of trust where they are engaged in the process. It really helps tremendously.”
And the payoff has already begun. Both say curiosity kept the downtown busy during the project and after it was completed. That seems to have continued over the past year, Carlson says, as folks who rarely visited downtown Alexandria have become more regular patrons.
“We’ll see the benefit for years,” Schoonhoven says. Carlson agrees. “It has been a real boon for Alexandria,” she says. “You can see it and feel it. It’s really a good thing.”
Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minnesota.
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