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Detour: Bemidji Avenue to close Monday

A summer-long road project will begin Monday as Bemidji drivers will have to adjust to a planned detour for Bemidji Avenue.

Bemidji Avenue North, also known as Paul Bunyan Drive and Highway 197, will be closed beginning Monday from Third Street to 23rd Street.

Irvine Avenue is planned to be the detour route. Traffic will be directed there off of Second Street via America Avenue.

"Monday is going to be interesting," said City Engineer Craig Gray.

Many businesses will be affected by the road closure, although all still will be accessible via side streets.

John Reff, store manager of Slumberland Furniture, said his store has been educating its customers about impending roadwork through flyers and advertisements containing maps of how the business may be accessed.

"We're not expecting too much of a decrease (in customers)," he said Friday.

While 20,000 vehicles may daily drive by Slumberland on Bemidji Avenue, the business counts on having about 20 stop.

"We're kind of a destination," Reff said, noting that customers will be willing to come in through the back - off of Irvine Avenue and 18th Street.

"Everything should be well marked," Reff said.

While Gray said he has not yet fielded too many calls from the public about the project, some residents along Irvine Avenue have expressed some concerns about their ability to back out of their driveways. In response, Gray said he told them that they may have to make right-hand turns out of their driveways during the morning and evening rush hours.

"Making a left might be pretty difficult," Gray said.

Throughout the detour, parking will not be allowed along Irvine Avenue, which will become a three-lane road to accommodate one lane of traffic in each direction and a middle lane for left-turning vehicles.

Two stages of work are planned to occur, with the final portion expected to be complete by mid-August. While road reconstruction will not widen the roadway, work will eliminate the "weave" or "jig" outside of the former Carnegie Library. Utilities will also be replaced.

The first phase of the project, from Third to Eighth streets, must be complete by June 21 in order to accommodate the Jaycees Water Carnival July 2-6 at the Lake Bemidji waterfront.

Andy Wagner, the project manager with prime contractor Ulland Brothers of Cloquet, Minn., said the company is aiming to have the first phase complete before June 21, but has allotted some leeway in case of unexpected delays.

"The whole waterfront area will be available for the Jaycees Water Carnival," Gray said.

Once the first phase is done, the detour will begin at Fifth Street, leading traffic again to Irvine Avenue.

Businesses along Bemidji Avenue will still be accessible, as the intersections at 10th and 15th streets will remain open for local traffic.

Ulland Brothers and MnDOT plan to host weekly meetings every Thursday to offer the public updates on the roadwork. The first meeting was held Thursday night as about a dozen people discussed what to expect on Monday.

"It's going to be challenging," said Craig A. Collison, assistant district engineer for MnDOT.

Todd Vonasek, resident engineer with MnDOT, said crews are going to work as quickly as they can. Residents will be able to see two or three crews working at once throughout the construction project.

"It's going to be that busy out there," he said.

MnDOT has tried to be proactive, he said, and permits have already been obtained in case workers come across archeological issues or contaminated soils, he noted.

Vonasek applauded the work of MnDOT's road design team of Bill Pirkl, Dean Robertson and Debbie Bauer, who have worked to identify and respond to anticipated concerns.

"I feel real confident that we have conquered a lot of the hurdles," Vonasek. "(The road design team) has done a great job."

Several concerns voiced by the public Thursday were centered around what to expect for disruption in water or utility service.

Lori Forshee Donnay with the Bemidji Community Arts Center in the former Carnegie Library building, said that personnel in the building are prepared to deal with inconveniences such as water service disruptions but wondered if staff would know what to expect ahead of time.

"Nobody should be without water without knowing it ahead of time," Gray said.

Water shutoffs are planned to be minimized, but if service is disrupted, Gray stressed that the city would first notify affected homes and businesses.

Donnay noted that she and other staff members expect to experience at least some shaking of the walls and extra dust during roadwork, so they will remove valuables from the walls and cover artwork.

"To build you a good road, we need to beat it up a whole lot," Vonasek said.

He noted that a consultant has gone around to area buildings including the Carnegie Building to document, on video, their condition prior to roadwork.

"We had that concern too," he said.

Vonasek highlighted the foresight of the art center's staff and suggested that others who are concerned about family heirlooms or valuables should consider taking similar precautions.

"Better safe than sorry," he said.

Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lori Paris asked about the stop light at Second Street, which will be used to direct traffic from Bemidji Avenue toward the detour route. Paris said the stoplight often is not triggered from certain directions and traffic is stuck at the intersection for long periods of time.

Vonasek said the stoplight will be set on a "manual" cycle, meaning that traffic will not need to trigger it to change. The light, instead, will automatically cycle through its series.