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Under disruption: Businesses share impacts of Highway 71 road construction

A summer of construction on Highway 71 in Bemidji has begun to impact some local businesses cut off from the main routes of traffic.

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Construction continues along U.S. Highway 71 on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, as crews work to install a roundabout at the Anne Street intersection.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — With construction stretching along U.S. Highway 71 from Paul Bunyan Drive north to Winter Sumac Road, orange cones, barriers and heavy machinery have become a common sight for many Bemidjians.

For some local businesses, however, the construction has meant more than just a longer and less convenient commute.

Effectively cut off from the main routes of traffic, some businesses in Bemidji west of the construction zone have seen significant reductions in customers and sales.

“We’ve actually seen a reduction between 15 and 20%,” said Chris Joy, one of the owners of Pets Plus, a store located near the construction area. “That’s a pretty big jump, and that’s probably our biggest obstacle right now.”

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Pets Plus is one of several businesses being impacted by the continued construction on U.S. Highway 71 as crews work to install a roundabout at the Anne Street intersection.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Construction has closed the west-bound lanes across Highway 71 at Paul Bunyan Drive and Anne Street, meaning that to reach businesses like Pets Plus there’s a significant detour north to Fern Street just to reach the other side of the road.

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“We’ve noticed a foot traffic change,” said Davy Mills, owner of Bemidji Marine. “Whether that’s the economy with how things are going or not, it’s definitely changed.”

This downturn in business is also coming on top of two years of the varying economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, from issues with supply chains to the rising cost of inflation.

“(Business) is pretty much like lockdown time, but with everything costing more,” Joy explained, “so that’s been difficult.”

For many businesses, the hope was that the summer of 2022 would be a return to normal growth, but lane closures, detours and construction have led to fewer customers, making the rebound difficult.

“We thought that 2022 was going to be more business as usual,” Joy said. “We were planning to keep on growing and expanding, but with construction, it’s kind of nerfed some things.”

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Construction continues along U.S. Highway 71 on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, as crews work to install a roundabout at the Anne Street intersection.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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Bemidji Sports Centre is one of several businesses being impacted by the continued construction on U.S. Highway 71 as crews work to install a roundabout at the Anne Street intersection.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Highway 71 project

The construction along Highway 71 began on May 16 and is expected to go through October. It includes a number of safety and infrastructure improvements, including the construction of a roundabout at the Anne Street intersection.

“The overall reasoning was to make some long-term improvement having to do with safety,” said Leslie Seitz, District 2 public affairs coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “The good news is that we’re exactly on track to where we’re supposed to be.”

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Both Joy and Mills understand the need for the construction, even if some of the impacts of the project have led to a decrease in business.

“I think it’s just something as a business you have to deal with,” Mills said. “They’re going to do it so we have to compensate and do what we have to do to survive.”

For Joy, the biggest issue with the project has been difficulties with clear communication on when construction is expected to be completed.

“(MnDOT) has been very good about giving us information like what the roads are and the phases,” Joy shared. “My biggest complaint would be they haven’t provided a lot of target dates, everything is TBD.”

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Bemidji Sports Centre is one of several businesses being impacted by the continued construction on U.S. Highway 71 as crews work to install a roundabout at the Anne Street intersection.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Joy spent a fair amount of time trying to learn more about when the intersections near his business might be open to traffic, and only recently was able to find the correct contact.

“I understand with road construction there’s a lot of factors that weigh into it, but my biggest thing is we never really knew when the project would be done as it pertains to us,” Joy said.

The contact Joy found said the earliest the Anne Street crossing could be open was late August or mid-September since the construction on the roundabout will take considerable time.

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Construction continues along U.S. Highway 71 on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, as crews work to install a roundabout at the Anne Street intersection.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

“We’re still a ways out from opening those intersections, we have to wait until the roundabout is almost complete to open those lanes,” Seitz explained. “This is the biggest part of the project, what we’re in. It’s difficult for everyone.”

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But Seitz hopes that once the project and the roundabout, in particular, are complete, it will benefit the entire community.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of safety benefits,” Seitz said. “You can’t zip through a roundabout like you can a red stoplight.”

Even with the impact to his business, Mills sees the benefits of the construction and is appreciative that it’s adding to the economy.

“We’re putting money into the economy, it brings business to Bemidji,” Mills said. “If I have to sacrifice a little bit of my business to make everything else go a little better, I think in the end it really helps me out anyway.”

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The right lane is closed along Paul Bunyan Drive due to continued construction on U.S. Highway 71 as crews work to install a roundabout at the Anne Street intersection.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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A portion of Anne Street near the Sanford Health campus is closed off or reduced to one lane as construction continues along U.S. Highway 71 on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, as crews work to install a roundabout at the Anne Street intersection.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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A portion of Anne Street near the Sanford Health campus is closed off or reduced to one lane as construction continues along U.S. Highway 71 on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, as crews work to install a roundabout at the Anne Street intersection.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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Construction continues along U.S. Highway 71 on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, as crews work to install a roundabout at the Anne Street intersection.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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