The Trestle Bridge Project Steering Committee is moving forward with plans for development in the area, following a lengthy meeting Monday night

Ryan Zemek, economic development director for the Headwaters Regional Development Commission in Bemidji, said the bridge is unsafe. Zemek said he saw kids jumping off the bridge this summer, although a sign says it is closed.

“The bridge miraculously coming back into use and being a great community asset is not on the table,” he said.

“It’s on the demolition list,” David Schotzko of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Parks and Trails Division in Bemidji said. “Back in 2011 our engineers looked at it, and the numbers just weren’t there to fix it. That was a firm decision.”

Schotzko said engineers at that time estimated a short-term fix would cost $196,000, a long-term fix $315,000 and removing and replacing it with a steel bridge $500,000.

“That is probably more like a million bucks today,” Park Rapids city planner Andrew Mack said.

“I understand the nostalgia, but as far as bridges go there’s nothing really unique about this one,” Zemek said. “Safety was the biggest factor. The integrity of the bridge is why we closed it. Half of the pilings have rotted off.”

Bridge demolition process

The DNR owns the bridge and adjoining property. Two parcels are currently leased by State Farm Insurance and an apartment complex. Zemek said small lots on either side of the bridge are not viable for commercial development.

Mack asked Schotzko if there is anything the community can do to expedite the process of removing the bridge and developing the area around it.

“There are a lot of hoops to jump through,” Schotzko replied. “It’s complicated. Quite a few bridges are on the demo list across the state, but there’s really no money and no push so they’re not getting much attention.”

Don Sells of the Hubbard County Soil and Water Conservation District asked if the DNR would pay for the removal.

“That’s to be determined,” Schotzko said. “It’s on our demolition list so the intent would be yes, when we get some money we would remove it. But right now we’re building tunnels and bridges from Osage to Detroit Lakes and working on Emmaville to Park Rapids. That takes a lot of energy. There’s no push to get rid of things, and a push is what it’s going to take. If you get a group that’s more vocal, it’s going to help start the conversation.”

As to how long it might take to remove the bridge, Zemek said it could be two years or 10.

“Rather than let it sit there and be a hazard and rot in place is there something we can do to push this conversation forward?” he asked.

Schotzko said there is a 54-foot span and center post in the water. “Most likely what we would do is cut everything off at the bottom of the lake by underwater divers,” he said. “To try and pull these out, I don’t know that you could do it. Most of those were driven down with pile drivers. They had to hold a train.”

He added that studies and permits would be required along with an environmental analysis before decommissioning the bridge. Taking out fill and proper disposal of materials were also discussed.

“We’re going to be working in public water,” he said. “That makes it more complicated.”

The demolition price is another unknown factor.

“Back in 2011 we estimated the cost would be $60,000 for removal, but every year the cost is going up,” Schotzko said. “We would contract it out. If the city wanted the girder, the contractor might increase the price if they don’t get to keep that metal.”

Until the bridge is torn down, it is unclear whether the property sale could be completed without transferring the responsibility of tearing down the bridge along with the sale.

“It’s been closed by the DNR for eight or nine years,” Zemek said. “We need to do something to get the ball rolling and have a hand in our fate rather than just wait.”

Issues related to the environmental impact of tearing down the bridge include a restoration plan which may include native plants for natural buffers.

Local artist shares vision for location

Given the historic impact of the trestle bridge, Zemek asked the group for ideas to repurpose it into some form of public art and green space.

“The objective is to put a proposal out there from the community, a vision we can go with to the DNR and the legislature to see if there is interest,” he said.

City arts and culture advisory commission member Paul Albright said he would like to see wood and metals from the bridge incorporated into a sculpture on land near the bridge.

He described a “landscaping tiered object” that could turn the area from an eyesore to something that’s artistic, useful and community friendly.

Albright said he and other sculptors who have visited the site are excited about the possibilities.

“There’s a long stretch where there could be gates similar to the Shinto ones in Japan leading to the point,” he said. “You could possibly run electricity out there to a small stage. This is a unique spot that has the potential of adding interest to the area. With the bridge gone, as you drive along the road, it would be something that’s aesthetically pleasing looking across the lake to a free-standing sculpture and performance area, and beyond that same view you’re looking at the Red Bridge Park that is very picturesque.”

The way the location connects to Heartland Park was also emphasized.

The Legacy Fund was suggested as a possible source of grant funding for the arts component of the project. Zemek said the first step is a site plan.

“Given the potential costs we’re talking, it’s probably a multi-pronged funding strategy,” he said.

Park Rapids city council member Liz Stone suggested incorporating the history of the railroad into the project.

Moving forward

Participants agreed that developing a vision and plan for the space are the next steps.

“It’s about public engagement and getting people’s input in the design process,” Zemek said. “People feel better if they get to have their say.”

“We need to get something solid going here,” city parks board member Ruth Ann Campton said. “We can talk about all these things, but I think we need to know more before we go to the public for input. We need to have something solid to say to them, and at this point we don’t.”

Another point of discussion was that if it’s going to take 10 years to get the bridge removed, public sentiment could “sway wildly” during that time and plans made now could become irrelevant.

Zemek said it coming down to a philosophical question, whether to come up with a plan and force the issue, putting it on DNR and policymakers’ plate, or to say, “It’s going to happen someday and we’ll figure it out when it happens.”

“I think we need an inventory and to have answers,” Stone said. ���I don’t think it’s going to do any good to continue talking, because that just creates speculation. But if we have a to-do list, we can say we’re exploring it and get answers. I feel like we either need to make a plan to explore this or we don’t have any more meetings.”

Mack said the committee is still in the fact-finding and discovery mode. Once input is received, a plan can be sketched out for grant purposes.

Zemek said first steps are to determine the best use for the property, obtain community input, and come up with a plan and architect sketches.

Campton said the question she most wants answered is what happens if the adjoining land is purchased by the city or county – who would be responsible for tearing down the bridge.