Hastings bridge reopens, main street relievedby Toni Randolph, Minnesota Public Radio
Many business owners in Hastings are looking forward to this weekend. It will be the first weekend in more than a month in which the Highway 61 bridge is wide open to traffic. They're hoping the unfettered access will lure people who've been avoiding Hastings back to town.
Hastings, Minn. — For much of the last six weeks, the Highway 61 bridge, the main entrance to Hastings from the north, has been down to one lane of alternating traffic. That was so MnDOT could make much-needed repairs to the span. The work has sometimes caused the bridge to be shut down altogether.
But that's a thing of the past for now. Starting this week, the lane restrictions are now only on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.
It is not a moment too soon for Tom Hultberg, who manages the Spiral Natural Food store in downtown Hastings. He said some of his customers have been avoiding his store since the project began last month.
"We saw an impact right way, that it slowed business down. We even had customers that told us, specifically one from Prescott, that she's going to wait until the bridge thing is totally done before she comes back," Hultberg said.
Hultberg says others have stopped coming in, too. He's seen a 15 to 20 percent drop in business compared to the same period last year. It's been so bad that he's had to cut one person from his staff and reduce the hours of those who remain. Other downtown businesses tell similar tales of woe.
But some say it didn't have to be this way. Hope and Bill Kopp own the Mississippi Belle Restaurant and Wine Bar, which sits right next to the bridge. Hope Kopp says they've had dozens of cancellations since work started on the bridge, and she attributes that to inaccurate information about the delays.
"Out on 494, 35E, all these different areas in Eagan, Inver Grove Heights, St. Paul, it basically has 'Hastings bridge, major delays.' I mean, it's so misleading," Kopp said.
Kopp says, in fact, most of the time the delays were minor.
Michelle Jacobs, the president of the Hastings Chamber of Commerce, says she thinks many people avoided Hastings, because they thought there were going to be 30 to 45-minute delays, because MnDOT had warned of such delays before the project started.
But Jacobs says people in and around Hastings found out that wasn't the case.
"I think a lot of people in those closer areas, the Prescotts and some of those (areas), realized it's not the half hour or 45 minutes that we thought it was going to be or anticipated it might be. It was really a 10-minute delay, and was much quicker than driving the entire loop around or avoiding it completely," Jacobs said.
While the delays, or perceived delays, from the bridge work hurt some businesses, not everyone suffered. Hollie Kennedy works at R.J.'s Tavern on Main.
"Our business really didn't fall off. The upside to it was that people that probably normally would have crossed the bridge to go out to dinner or something came downtown instead. So it's been good exposure for us down here," she said.
Kennedy hopes things will get even better this weekend, with the Saturday Night Cruise-In that features hundreds of classic cars lining the streets of downtown Hastings. She hopes people who love Hastings and classic cars will show up, now that the Highway 61 bridge allows unfettered weekend access to the city for the first time all summer.
The return to normal is faster than anticipated, but still only temporary. MnDOT plans to replace the Highway 61 bridge in 2010.
- All Things Considered, 06/27/2008, 5:20 p.m.