By Andrew Tellijohn
It took a decade, $20 million from six different resources, several partnerships, and meetings with the Prairie Island Indian Community, but the Afton Downtown Village Improvement Project is almost complete.
The project netted Afton a new wastewater collection and treatment system, reconstruction of county and local roads, an improved levee that provides greater than 100-year flood protection, and other improvements. The project brought the 160-year-old river town into the 21st century while preserving its historic character.
It was a huge undertaking, especially for a small city of just under 3,000 people. But City Administrator Ron Moorse says the payoff for Afton in the long run will be immense. “The City Council dared to think big and then went out and found partners, particularly funding partners,” Moorse says.
The project was the winner of a League of Minnesota Cities 2019 City of Excellence Award.
Eroding streets and floods that overwhelmed the city’s existing levees made it clear that infrastructure work was in Afton’s future. But it became more urgent in 2008. That’s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers notified Afton staff that the levee protecting the Old Village was not up to the standards necessary to remain in the voluntary assistance program.
A year later, Afton hired an engineering consultant to develop a multidisciplinary approach to preserving the downtown area and rebuilding the levee. Then the city appointed a public task force to lead the development and project planning.
Everybody jumped on board the flood levee issue.
“We’ve had a number of flood events,” Moorse says. “They cause damage and they take a lot of work and money, and so we wanted to see how we could solve that.”
But the project grew when city officials discovered that the drain fields for several private septic systems in the flood plain of the St. Croix River were actually built into the levee. When locating those drain fields became an issue, the city turned its thoughts to a local wastewater treatment and collection system.
“That was the start,” Moorse says. “None of this came cheap for the city either. The City Council had to really think hard about [whether we were] willing to put a couple million dollars into this. Then there are going to have to be assessments to the property owners. All of that was discussed for a couple years before the Council gave the green light to at least move forward with some planning work.”
As the projects became larger, Afton began getting grant commitments to help with costs. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) agreed to help fund the flood mitigation with a $3.9 million grant. The Minnesota Public Facilities Authority (PFA), the financing arm of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, kicked in $8.7 million in grants and loans for the wastewater treatment facility.
The city also secured a $50,000 grant from the Valley Branch Watershed District, and a $200,000 grant from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.
As those projects were becoming reality, city staff began exploring some of its other challenges. Its local roads in the downtown area were in poor condition and were slated to be replaced in a few years. But when the sewer project required digging up those roads, PFA agreed to pay a portion of that cost. Washington County also picked up a portion of the cost in the amount of $4.3 million because one of its county roads serves as Afton’s main street.
“It all started coming together,” Moorse says. “There were a ton of infrastructure needs that were met about as cost-effectively as you are ever going to be able to do it.”
Mayor Bill Palmquist—who served on the City Council as planning started and was elected mayor in 2018—preached patience. Lining up the partnerships was expensive, time consuming, and complicated. But it made sense.
“All these issues were intertwined,” Palmquist says. “In order to fix the levee, we had to get the septic systems out of the levee. The roads kept getting put off because we knew we had these problems to fix. They had fallen apart because of stormwater. So, you couldn’t do just one of them.”
It wasn’t without challenges. One popped up when staff realized some of the plans were in the path of the 900-year-old Native American burial site known as the Rattlesnake Effigy Mound, which was thought by some experts to no longer exist.
Afton officials met with the Prairie Island Indian Community to discuss the issue and, ultimately, rerouted some of its stormwater treatment infrastructure to avoid damaging the grounds.
All in all, five funding partners shared the cost with Afton, which also kicked in the $1 million it had previously set aside for the downtown road improvements and another $1 million through a 10-year levy.
Not only did the projects solve the city’s biggest infrastructure problems for decades to come, but they also helped make the city a more environmentally friendly place to live. The new stormwater system is removing 2,500 pounds of organic matter from the stormwater each year, keeping it out of the St. Croix River.
“Not having any stormwater controls, let alone treatment, isn’t very good stewardship,” Palmquist says. “Now we’re treating everything.”
Washington County was on board early. Wayne Sandberg, the county’s deputy director of public works, says Afton is one of the most historic cities in the state. In addition to fixing up the county road, he’s thrilled to have participated in a project that rejuvenated downtown without ruining its look and feel.
“We were able to maintain that historic feel,” Sandberg says. “It doesn’t look like we turned it into suburbia.” He credits city leadership, including former Mayor Richard Bend, for keeping the project on track. The mayor “did a lot of important things that helped move this forward,” Sandberg says.
The city’s consultant also did a great job of making county leaders comfortable with the idea of bundling the county road work with the other city work, all under one large contract managed by the city.
“It truly was a partnership,” Sandberg says. “We had to coordinate all the different work scopes and tasks. There was a lot of back and forth. Once we knew there was a partnership, we really were involved on every aspect of the project.”
Pat Lynch, the Flood Hazard Mitigation Grant Program manager for the DNR, credited the city for doing a great job of finding different funding resources.
The legislative appropriation of funds included language limiting Afton’s local match to $2 million. Not bad when replacing the existing levee was such an obvious need, Lynch says. It was constructed in 1969 as an emergency measure that was meant to be removed. But it was never moved, nor was it properly maintained.
Lynch adds that the project will pay dividends for local business owners who had been burdened by their location in an area at risk for flooding. They had to spend quite a bit of money on flood insurance.
The DNR still encourages property owners to consider flood insurance, Lynch says. But the new levee ensures their rates will decrease significantly with the lessened risk.
“Once this project is certified, it will provide some opportunities to make some improvements or expansions they otherwise couldn’t,” he says.
As the record-breaking snows melted into basements everywhere last spring, the town’s new infrastructure got its first test. Afton residents, business owners, and city staff got more sleep than they have in past years. The new, higher levee was up to the task.
“It worked great,” Moorse says. “In the past, we had some temporary flood pumps we would bring to the levee to pump water from the land side back into the river. To do that, we have to get volunteers to sign up—that might be from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.—and all day long because you have to monitor these pumps.”
With this year’s melting, Moorse speculates that process might have taken as long as two months. Instead, the city was able to sell one of its temporary pumps because the levee did such a great job of holding the water back.
“Plus, we have built into the levee a stormwater lift station, which has two pumps 10 times more powerful than the two pumps we used to use. When the water reaches a certain level, it just clicks on,” he says.
“We didn’t have to do anything this year. It just worked,” Moorse says. “We are very happy. It turned out great.”
Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minnesota.
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