BEMIDJI -- The Minnesota Department of Transportation is still interested in making upgrades to State Highway 197.
This time, to ensure a proposal will be satisfactory to the public and business community, the state agency is teaming up with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission. Over the next year, the HRDC will lead a renewed planning effort by collaborating with residents and business owners.
The new effort will be the second exploration of Highway 197 improvements with community input launched by MnDOT. Over the course of nearly seven months in 2019, MnDOT held a series of community meetings before ultimately submitting a project proposal for a corridor of Highway 197 from Bemidji Avenue to Gillette Drive.
Because the pavement of Highway 197, also known as Paul Bunyan Drive, will reach the end of its service life in 2025, MnDOT officials developed a proposal to resurface the road. Additionally, MnDOT also proposed reconstructing storm sewers, gutters and other utilities, as well as installing six roundabouts.
The proposed project would have been done in two phases, with the first phase estimated at $8 million and the second at $11 million. The main motivation for adding roundabouts to the stretch of road was to improve safety, as traffic on the corridor is expected to increase.
If it had been approved, the roundabouts would have been installed at the Menards entrance, Middle School Avenue, Hannah Avenue, Pine Ridge Avenue and Bemidji Avenue. However, the proposal was met with opposition by several business owners and the project was voted down by the Bemidji City Council in August 2019.
In the new effort, the plan is for the HRDC to lead the planning process by collaborating with residents and businesses. The first step is expected in July, when the council will consider approving the representative panel, which will include residents, business owners, stakeholder groups and city representatives. The latter can include both elected officials and staff.
"It will probably be a group of 20 people and it will likely meet at first online just because of the pandemic," said HRDC Executive Director Tim Flathers. "MnDOT's intention is to complete a resurfacing on 197 at a minimum, and there may be an opportunity for additional work in there to meet other community interests. It's hard to know what direction that will go without involving other members of the community in the conversation."
Recommendations that are created by the new group will be brought before the city of Bemidji and MnDOT next year, with adoption expected in summer 2021.
"I think the reason they asked us to facilitate the conversation was to make it clear that this is about finding the broad range of community interest," Flathers said. "Our job is to make sure we have the appropriate conversation and hopefully it becomes a discussion that's not just centered on how many roundabouts should be built."
Those interested in being a community representative in the group are encouraged to call Flathers at (218) 333-6532 or Emily Tribby at (218) 333-6542.
"We do want the group to be represented by a variety of different interests," Flathers said. "The main thing is -- whether people are sitting on the task force or not -- we want to keep people in the loop in terms of what's happening with the conversations."