Community review panel to decide best concepts for Highway 197 corridor this week

A community review panel that has met since last summer will select their favorite options for reconstructing State Highway 197. They will then take their selections to the public later this month and continue presenting the proposal over the summer.

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BEMIDJI -- A group of community members from a variety of backgrounds will soon get a full preview of what a busy section of State Highway 197 may look like in the future.

Also known as Paul Bunyan Drive, the section of road extends from Bemidji Avenue to Gillett Drive. Along the way, there are several grocery stores, supermarkets, restaurants and other shops, making it one of the city's busiest corridors.

On a daily basis, between 10,000 and 16,000 motorists use the stretch of road. By 2030, the stretch is estimated to handle more than 20,000 vehicles per day.

According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the corridor has had one crash per week and one injury per month. In 2019, MnDOT held a series of community meetings before submitting a proposal that included six roundabouts through the corridor.

The roundabouts would have been installed at the entrance to Menards, Middle School Avenue, Hannah Avenue, Pine Ridge Avenue and Bemidji Avenue. The proposal was met with opposition from several businesses, though, and the Bemidji City Council voted it down that year.


To restart the planning process and better provide information with the community, MnDOT partnered with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission. Since summer 2020, a community review panel has met regularly to discuss how to improve the highway.

The highway's pavement will end its service life in 2025. In addition to needing a resurfacing, utility work is also required.

"We're bringing together in economic development, pedestrian advocacy groups, representatives from the city and county and a variety of other people there," said Ryan Zemek, HRDC economic development director. "We've been doing meetings twice a month and going segment by segment. We're asking 'what's working with this part of the corridor and what's not?' 'What would improve traffic flow?' and 'What would improve safety and pedestrian access?'"

On Thursday, the panel will take a look at initial concepts based on their input so far. The three segments under review include Gillett Drive to Hannah Avenue, Hannah Avenue to Ridgeway Avenue and Ridgeway Avenue to Bemidji Avenue.

The intersection of Paul Bunyan Drive and Hannah Avenue is one of several intersections that will be upgraded during a major reconstruction of State Highway 197 (Paul Bunyan Drive) within the several years. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

"Hopefully, we'll land on a place where there's consensus for further evaluation," Zemek said. "We'll then take those out to the public and share those concepts with businesses to understand what potential changes there are."

Zemek said along with businesses, the plans will be presented to both the Bemidji City Council and Beltrami County Board of Commissioners this month.


"Later, from May 24-July 18, we're also going to have an online open house and survey where people can look at the concepts, see the proposed changes and leave their feedback," Zemek said. "We're also planning in-person activities, as far as public safety allows, with some pop up booths at businesses in June. We're also looking to have a presence at community events like the Water Carnival."

Once the public comment period is over, the community review panel will meet in early August to make a recommendation on a design for the highway's redesign. The design then has to be given the green light by MnDOT.

"MnDOT isn't participating directly on the panel, they're more of a technical assistance provider," Zemek said. "Ultimately, they do have to sign off on what the panel comes up with, but the design will come from the panel."

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