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Perham leaders share tips to make construction successful

Park Rapids heard good news Wednesday from Perham leaders who shared their experience of downtown reconstruction and revitalization at a "cracker barrel" session.

Park Rapids is planning a similar Main Avenue reconstruction and revitalization and downtown business owners wanted to start preparing for what to expect. Ellis Jones, a downtown business owner, organized Wednesday's event and plans to have monthly "cracker barrel" sessions about different topics.

Perham building official Dave Neisen and former Perham city manager Bob Louiseau shared ideas as to why their project was successful. Construction on the business portion of Main Street in Perham started in mid-July and wrapped up in the fall except for some final details to complete in the spring.

Louiseau said a committee was started among business owners in downtown and they discussed how they could turn the project into a positive endeavor despite having limited access to businesses and limited parking.

One of the biggest successes was planning special promotions and events, and working with the newspaper to draw people to downtown despite the construction.

"One day they had a ping pong dropping contest and hundreds came to watch," Louiseau said.

Another day, when there were stores that had no access, two people from the construction crew carried people to the store.

It was creativity that made the construction successful, Louiseau said.

That summer, he said businesses actually did more business than the previous year.

Communication was also a key to the success. The city, contractors and business owners met weekly during the construction project, Louiseau said.

In Perham, business owners fixed up their back doors before construction began so customers could access the stores. Temporary sidewalks were installed - a boardwalk - so customers could access front entrances most of the time.

"It was very effective," Louiseau said.

Parking was more of an issue and took quite a bit of planning, he said.

Park Rapids engineering consultant Gary Nansen, of Ulteig Engineering, Inc., was also involved with the Perham project. He attended Wednesday's meeting.

He attempted to answer the big question of the evening: When will construction begin for the Park Rapids project?

"If things were to happen according to plan, I would anticipate that phase one would go in 2010 and phase two would go in 2011," Nansen said.

But the Park Rapids City Council has yet to determine a date. It has expressed interest in having the project begin in 2010 with at least one phase of the project but that decision has not been made. Earlier this year, the council decided to hold off on the project due to uncertainty with state Local Government Aid funding.

The project, as proposed, would be constructed in two phases. Phase one includes Sixth Street to Industrial Park Road and the side streets including Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Eleventh. Phase two is the business portion of Main Avenue, from Highway 34 south. The phasing could change, however.

Some of the detailed design work still needs to be completed. The council will reconsider proceeding with the detailed design work of phase one and preliminary design work on phase two at its next meeting, Tuesday, May 12.

Another phase of the project is a streetscape plan that would result in more cosmetic changes to the downtown area. The cityscape plan hasn't been finalized but could include landscaping, new lighting, decorative trash receptacles, a portable performance square, bike racks, benches, pedestrian crosswalks or corner enhancements. Downtown business owners will likely have input on streetscapes.

"The planning to do these types of projects takes time," Nansen said.

The council is continuing to search for outside funding for the project through grants.

"From day one, finding moneys that were available for downtown infrastructure project and street enhancements has been pretty tough," said Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission executive director David Collins. "Oberstar's office has been contacted."

Collins also said he's hoping to receive a Small Cities Development grant that will help business owners fix up their storefronts with probably a 50/50 matching grant.

A second "cracker barrel" session will be May 27. City of Wadena leaders will discuss how Park Rapids can learn from their experience of construction through downtown.

On June 24, the topic for the "cracker barrel" will be how to incorporate the arts into the downtown area.

Future sessions could be on any topic, Jones said. He is open to suggestions.